United States Supreme Court Upholds Warrantless Searches Based On Dog Sniffs

March 25, 2013
By Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC on March 25, 2013 1:57 PM |

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in the case of Florida v. Harris (2013), holding that an alert by a dog trained to detect drugs is valid and sufficient to establish probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of an automobile.

This issue was originally addressed by the Florida Supreme Court in Harris v. State (2011). In Harris, a Florida canine police officer conducted a traffic stop of the defendant's truck for having an expired tag. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officer observed that the defendant was shaking, breathing rapidly, and could not sit still.

The officer requested the defendant consent to a search of the vehicle, but the defendant refused. The officer then deployed his drug-sniffing dog. The canine alerted to the door handle of the driver's side of the vehicle during a "free air sniff" of the exterior of the truck. Upon searching the vehicle the officer found various chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

The defendant was charged with possession of the chemical pseudoephedrine with intent to use it to manufacture methamphetamine and filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search of the vehicle. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and, on appeal, the appellate court affirmed.

The Florida Supreme Court later overturned the appellate court's decision opining, "[T]hat evidence that the dog has been trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish the dog's reliability for purposes of determining probable cause -- especially since training and certification in this state are not standardized and thus each training and certification program may differ with no meaningful way to assess them."

In reversing the Florida Supreme Court's decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the state does not have to show that a drug dog is reliable, rather, the defense must prove that the canine is unreliable through expert testimony or other evidence challenging the training or methods used by police.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote: "Requiring the State to introduce comprehensive documentation of the dog's prior hits and misses in the field, and holding that absent field records will preclude a finding of probable cause no matter how much other proof the State offers, is the antithesis of a totality-of-the-circumstances approach."

The Supreme Court's decision in this case has significant implications for criminal defendants seeking to challenge warrantless vehicle searches based upon canine drug-sniffs. Although the Supreme Court has previously held that police may utilize drug dogs during traffic stops and also that police may search cars without a warrant when they have determined there is probable cause to do so, it has never before gone so far as to proclaim that a canine's alert alone is sufficient to establish probable cause to search.

The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been charged with a crime. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.