Supreme Court Strikes Florida's Checklist for Dog Sniffs, Finds Training Record of Drug Dogs to be More Probative Than Field Performance

In Florida v. Harris, Officer William Wheetley initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Clayton Harris.  A trained dog, Aldo, conduct a sniff test on the vehicle and alerted to the presence of narcotics on the driver’s door handle, so Officer Wheetley initiated a search.  No narcotics were found, but many ingredients for making methamphetamine were discovered, and Mr. Harris admitted to “cooking” and using methamphetamine regularly.  Mr. Harris was arrested and later released on bail.  Later, while Mr. Harris was out on bail, he was again stopped by Officer Wheetley and Aldo.  Aldo again alerted as to the presence of drugs, but no illicit substances were found.  At trial, Mr. Harris sought to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that Officer Wheetley lacked probable cause because Aldo’s field performance was questionable.  Mr. Harris was convicted, but appealed his case through the Florida court system and up to the United States Supreme Court.  In affirming Mr. Harris’ conviction, the Supreme Court found a drug dog’s performance in training was more probative than the dog’s record in the field, and that probable cause in a dog sniff case must be based on all factors and cannot be based on a rigid checklist.

On June 24, 2006, Officer William Wheetley of the Liberty County, Florida, Sherriff’s Department was on patrol with his drug-detection dog, Aldo.  Aldo was specifically trained to detect methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy. 

In the course of his routine patrol, Officer Wheetley initiated a stop of Clayton Harris for driving a truck with an expired license plate.  When Officer Wheetley approached the vehicle, he saw that Mr. Harris was visibly nervous.  Officer Wheetley also noticed an open container of beer in Mr. Harris’ cup holder.  Given these circumstances, Officer Wheetley asked for permission to search the vehicle.  When Mr. Harris refused, Officer Wheetley retrieved Aldo and conducted a “free air sniff.”

After conducting the sniff test, Aldo alerted as to the presence of narcotics on the driver’s side door handle.  Officer Wheetley then concluded that he had probable cause to conduct a search, but his search did not reveal any narcotics.  Instead, Officer Wheetley discovered “200 loose pseudoephedrine pills, 8,000 matches, a bottle of hydrochloric acid, two containers of antifreeze, and a coffee filter full of iodine crystals—all ingredients for making methamphetamine.”

Officer Wheetley then arrested, Mirandized, and questioned Mr. Harris.  During questioning, Mr. Harris admitted that he routinely “cooked” methamphetamine and that he could not go more than a few days without using methamphetamine.  Mr. Harris with charged with possession of pseudoephedrine for use in manufacturing methamphetamine and subsequently posted bail. 

While Mr. Harris was out on bail, he was again stopped by Officer Wheetley and Aldo.  On this occasion, he was stopped for having a broken tail light.  Aldo again alerted to the presence of narcotics on the driver’s side door handle, but the subsequent search revealed no contraband.

At trial in the Florida courts, Mr. Harris moved to suppress the evidence against him on the grounds that Aldo’s alert had not created probable cause.  At the suppression hearing, evidence of Aldo’s 120-hour training course in 2004, his 40-hour refresher course in 2005, and his four hour weekly training regime was introduced.  Testimony as to Aldo’s satisfactory performance in training was also introduced.  In response, Mr. Harris’ attorney pointed out that Aldo’s training certification, which was not required by law, had expired at the time Aldo had alerted on Mr. Harris’ vehicle.  It was also noted that in both stops, Aldo had alerted on Mr. Harris’ vehicle and no narcotics were detected.  Officer Wheetley retorted by explaining his belief that since Mr. Harris had admitted to cooking and using methamphetamine, it was likely that he had drug residue on his hands which he then transferred onto the handle of the driver’s door, and thus Aldo had actually detected traces of narcotics. 

Based on these arguments, the trial court found that Aldo’s alerting was sufficient to justify a search and denied Mr. Harris’ motion to suppress.  Mr. Harris entered a guilty plea which preserved his right to appeal the decision on the motion to suppress.  An intermediate Florida court affirmed. 

Mr. Harris then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which reversed the decision to deny suppression, holding that Officer Wheetley lacked probable cause to search Mr. Harris’s vehicle.  The Florida Supreme Court explained that when a dog alerts to the presence of narcotics, “the fact that the dog has been trained and certified is simply not enough to establish probable cause.”  To demonstrate a dog’s reliability, the State needed to produce a wider array of evidence:  “[T]he State must present . . . the dog’s training and certification records, an explanation of the meaning of the particular training and certification, field performance records (including any unverified alerts), and evidence concerning the experience and training of the officer handling the dog, as well as any other objective evidence known to the officer about the dog’s reliability.” 

The State of Florida then appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court of the United States.  In a unanimous decision written by Justice Kagan, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court. 

In its decision, the United States Supreme Court explained that based on precedent, “[t]he test for probable cause is not reducible to ‘precise definition or quantification.’  Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U. S. 366, 371 (2003).”  Moreover, “[f]inely tuned standards such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt or by a preponderance of the evidence . . . have no place in the [probable-cause] decision.” Illinois v.  Gates, 462 U. S. 213, 232 (1983).  Thus, the United States Supreme Court had previously “rejected rigid rules, bright-line tests, and mechanistic inquiries in favor of a more flexible, all-things-considered approach.”

The United States Supreme Court went on to explain that it was inappropriate for the Florida Supreme court to create “a strict evidentiary checklist, whose every item the State must tick off,” and chastised the Florida Supreme Court’s decision as “treat[ing] 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.  For that reason, evidence of a dog’s satisfactory performance in a certification or training program can itself provide sufficient reason to trust his alert.” 

The United States Supreme Court summarized its reasoning by noting that “[i]n short, a probable-cause hearing focusing on a dog’s alert should proceed much like any other.  The court should allow the parties to make their best case, consistent with the usual rules of criminal procedure.  And the court should then evaluate the proffered evidence to decide what all the circumstances demonstrate. . . .  The question—similar to every inquiry into probable cause—is whether all the facts surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime.”

Applying its probable cause rationale to the particular facts of this case, the United States Supreme Court determined that Aldo’s alert did indeed create probable cause to search.  Aldo had received extensive training, and had shown a satisfactory record in training, which deserved considerable credit in a probable cause assessment. 

Moreover, the United States Supreme Court found erroneous Mr. Harris’ inference that because narcotics were not present in his vehicle when Aldo alerted, Aldo’s alerts must have been false.  In fact, Mr. Harris was an admitted habitual drug user who regularly cooked methamphetamine; thus, it was most likely that after handling narcotics, residue was left on Mr. Harris’ hand, which he then transferred to the driver’s door handle that Aldo alerted on, as Officer Wheetley had explained. 

In light of all the factors, including Aldo’s training, Officer Wheetley had probable cause to conduct a search of Mr. Harris’ vehicle. 

This case, Florida v. Harris, is available here

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