Law enforcement agencies use detection dogs for various purposes. These animals are specially trained to perform a certain behavior (to “alert”) when they detect a specific smell. Cadaver dogs alert when they smell a dead body. Drug detection dogs alert when they smell certain controlled substances.
But just how reliable is an alert by a detection dog, and is it enough to establish probable cause or even result in a conviction for a drug crime? Let’s take a closer look.
Harris v. State Sets the Standard for Dog-Sniff Evidence in Florida
Harris v. State is perhaps the most notable case involving detection dog evidence in Florida. The case hinged on evidence discovered after a search of the defendant’s vehicle; probable cause for the search was based on a detection dog’s alert.
In 2006, Clayton Harris was arrested and charged with possession of pseudoephedrine with the intent to manufacture methamphetamine (meth) after a detection dog alerted at the driver’s side door handle of his truck. He had been pulled over for an expired tag, and the officer noted erratic behavior and an open container of alcohol before requesting to search Harris’s vehicle. Harris did not give consent for the officer to search his vehicle, but the officer was paired with a detection dog named Aldo. The officer had Aldo conduct a “free air sniff” of the area around the truck, at which point Aldo alerted at the driver’s side door handle. A resulting search uncovered 200 pseudoephedrine pills, 8 boxes of matches, and muriatic acid, all of which can be used to manufacture meth.
Harris was arrested and read his Miranda rights, after which point he stated he had been cooking meth for about one year and cooked a batch about two weeks prior.
In Harris v. State, the defense attempted to challenge Aldo’s “free air sniff,” arguing that establishing probable cause on such evidence should only be done based on the statistical track record of the dog in question. The court agreed and ruled that not only did dog-sniff evidence have to be backed by the specific animal’s performance history but that the prosecution must provide information on the dog’s false-positive rate (the percentage of times the dog alerted when there were no drugs present).
The case went to the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the state. The Supreme Court held that “evidence of a dog’s satisfactory performance in a certification or training program can itself provide sufficient reason to trust his alert.”
At the time of Harris’s arrest, Aldo had successfully completed a 120-hour drug detection training course at the Apopka Police Department and was certified as a drug-detection dog by Drug Beat K-9 Certifications. Aldo and the officer who arrested Harris also completed a 44-hour training seminar with the Dothan Police Department, an annual requirement, as well as 4 hours of drug detection training each week.
Even with the Supreme Court’s decision on this matter, dog-sniff evidence will be weighed on a case-by-case basis.
Potential Issues with Detection Dog Evidence
When detection dogs locate evidence or their alerts are used to establish probable cause for a search that yields evidence, there are issues to consider. A police dog shouldn’t be used as a guaranteed way to search a vehicle or property when the owner has refused to give consent, but this could happen if the dog is trained to alert based on the handler’s cues instead of actual detections. Some have brought up the argument of how a dog’s eager-to-please nature could lead to false alerts, or how rewarding a dog for alerting could lead to false positives as well. Rewarding a dog for every alert during training, even a false one, could alter the reliability of that dog’s alert in the field.
Dog-Sniff Evidence Is Decided on a Case-by-Case Basis
When it comes to drug cases, dog-sniff evidence must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The dog’s training and certification, the circumstances leading up to the search, and numerous other factors should be analyzed to determine whether it was a true alert and whether such evidence is admissible.
As Tampa drug crime lawyers, we have been fighting for clients across Florida since 2001. We have experience as former prosecutors as well, which helps us understand and anticipate how the other side thinks and works, and we use this to our clients’ advantage every single day. When it comes to dog-sniff evidence in drug cases, we know how to challenge evidence and question probable cause. After all, there is no such thing as an “open-and-shut” case, not when a skilled criminal defense attorney is there to ensure the defendant’s constitutional rights are protected to the fullest extent.
To find out more about our team and how we can help you, call (813) 321-7323.