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Drug-Sniffing Dog’s ‘Sniff Is Up to Snuff,’ Court Says

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday relaxed the standards for courts to consider vehicle searches prompted by an alert from a drug-sniffing dog.

Writing for the unanimous panel, Justice Elena Kagan said the Florida Supreme Court had improperly demanded more than evidence of the dog's training and certification.

That 2011 decision had noted that training and certification are not standardized in Florida, and said Florida failed to establish the reliability of Aldo, a K-9 unit that sniffed out methamphetamine ingredients in a car belonging to Clayton Harris.

Liberty County Sheriff's Canine Officer William Wheetley and his drug-detection dog, Aldo, made the discovery at a June 24, 2006, traffic stop.

Wheetley deployed the German shepherd after stopping Harris for expired tags and noticing an open beer can in the car cup holder. Harris, who was shaking, breathing rapidly and could not sit still, did not consent to the search.

After Aldo alerted Wheetley to the door handle of the driver's side, Wheetley discovered more than 200 pseudoephedrine pills in a plastic bag wrapped in a shirt. On the passenger's side, Wheetley discovered eight boxes of matches and a toolbox with muriatic acid.

Harris pleaded no contest to possession with intent manufacture meth and was sentenced to two years in prison. The First District tossed Harris' appeal over the search, but the state's high court said prosecutors did not prove Aldo's reliability.

Kagan noted, however, that the totality of the circumstances favors the police, and that the Florida Supreme Court's decision "flouted this established approach to determining probable cause."

"To assess the reliability of a drug-detection dog, the court created a strict evidentiary checklist, whose every item the state must tick off," Kagan wrote. "Most prominently, an alert cannot estab­lish probable cause under the Florida court's decision unless the state introduces comprehensive documentation of the dog's prior 'hits' and 'misses' in the field. (One wonders how the court would apply its test to a rookie dog.) No matter how much other proof the state offers of the dog's reliability, the absent field performance records will preclude a finding of probable cause. That is the antithesis of a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis." (Parentheses in original.)

The decision insists that "a finding of a drug-detection dog's reliability cannot depend on the state's satisfaction of multiple, independent eviden­tiary requirements."

"No more for dogs than for human informants is such an inflexible checklist the way to prove reliability, and thus establish probable cause," Kagan added.

"Making matters worse, the decision below treats records of a dog's field performance as the gold standard in evidence, when in most cases they have relatively limited import. Errors may abound in such records. If a dog on patrol fails to alert to a car containing drugs, the mis­take usually will go undetected because the officer will not initiate a search. Field data thus may not capture a dog's false negatives. Conversely (and more relevant here), if the dog alerts to a car in which the officer finds no narcot­ics, the dog may not have made a mistake at all. The dog may have detected substances that were too well hidden or present in quantities too small for the officer to locate. Or the dog may have smelled the residual odor of drugs pre­viously in the vehicle or on the driver's person. Field data thus may markedly overstate a dog's real false positives. By contrast, those inaccuracies - in either direction - do not taint records of a dog's performance in standard train­ing and certification settings. There, the designers of an assessment know where drugs are hidden and where they are not - and so where a dog should alert and where he should not. The better measure of a dog's reliability thus comes away from the field, in controlled testing environments."

Looking at all the facts surrounding Aldo's alert, "viewed through the lens of common sense," a reasonably prudent person would find that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime, according to the ruling.

"A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test," Kagan concluded.

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