How to Determine When a Drug Dog's Alert to a Vehicle is Reliable

         In the case of Clayton Harris versus the State of Florida, the Florida Supreme Court was asked to decide this question:  When does a drug-detection dog's alert to the outside of a vehicle provide a police officer with probable cause to search the inside of that vehicle without a search warrant?

 

          The relevant facts in the Harris case are as follows:

 

          "[O]n June 24, 2006, Liberty County Sheriff's Canine Officer William Wheetley and his drug-detection dog, Aldo, were on patrol.  Officer Wheetley conducted a traffic stop of Harris's truck after confirming that Harris's tag was expired.  Upon approaching the truck, Officer Wheetley noticed that Harris was shaking, breathing rapidly, and could not sit still.  Officer Wheetley also noticed an open beer can in the cup holder.  When Officer Wheetley asked for consent to search the truck, Harris refused.  Officer Wheetley then deployed Aldo.  Upon conducting a 'free air sniff' of the exterior of the truck, Aldo alerted to the door handle of the driver's side.

 

          Underneath the driver's seat, Officer Wheetley discovered over 200 pseudoephedrine pills in a plastic bag wrapped in a shirt.  On the passenger's side, Officer Wheetley discovered eight boxes of matches containing a total of 8,000 matches.  Officer Wheetley then placed Harris under arrest.  A subsequent search of a toolbox on the passenger side revealed muriatic acid.  Officer Wheetley testified that these chemicals are precursors of methamphetamine.  After being read his Miranda rights, Harris stated that he had been cooking meth for about one year and most recently cooked it at his home in Blountstown two weeks prior to the stop.  Harris also admitted to being addicted to meth and needing it at least every few days."

 

          The Supreme Court stated that whether or not a drug dog's alert to the outside of a vehicle provides an officer with probable cause to search the inside of that vehicle without a search warrant depends upon the dog's reliability to detect illegal substances within a vehicle.  In order to establish such reliability, a prosecutor must present evidence of the following things:

 

          1.  All records and evidence that are necessary to allow the trial judge to evaluate the dog's reliability in detecting illegal substances;

 

          2.  Due to the fact that there is no uniform standard for the training and certification of drug-detection dogs, a prosecutor must explain the training and certification so that the trial judge can evaluate how well a dog is trained and whether it falsely alerted during its training;

 

          3.  If a dog did falsely alert during its training, a prosecutor must provide evidence of the percentage of false alerts;

 

          4.  A prosecutor must keep and present records of a dog's actual performance in real cases, including the dog's successes (defined as alerts where illegal substances were found that a dog was trained to detect) and failures (defined as false or unverified alerts where illegal substances were not found that a dog was trained to detect);

 

          5.  A prosecutor must be given an opportunity to present evidence explaining the significance of any false alerts, as well as a dog's ability to detect or distinguish residual odors.  (An example of a residual odor is if someone were to have an odor of cocaine on his hands and he then touches a car's door handle, that handle might, in turn, have a residual odor of cocaine on it.); and

 

          6.  A prosecutor must present evidence of the experience and training of the police officer handling the dog.

 

          In Mr. Harris's case, the Supreme Court concluded that the dog's alert to the truck's door handle did not provide his handler with probable cause to search the inside of the truck without a search warrant for the following reasons:

 

          a.  Although the dog's training records revealed that he performed satisfactorily 100% of the time during part of 2005 and 2006, no testimony was presented about whether his satisfactory performance included any false alerts;

 

          b.  Little evidence was presented about the details of the dog's training, including whether his trainer was aware of the locations of the drugs and whether the training simulated a variety of environments and distractions;

 

          c.  The trainer did not keep records of the dog's false alerts;

 

          d.  No evidence was presented regarding the criteria necessary for the dog to become certified;

 

          e.  No evidence was presented regarding the dog's ability to detect residual odors; and

 

          f.  By itself, the dog's alert to the door handle of Harris's truck did not provide the arresting officer with probable cause to believe that drugs were present inside the truck.

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