Florida Supreme Court Limits Canine Search of Automobiles
On April 21, 2011 the Florida Supreme Court made it more difficult for law enforcement to use a drug detection dog’s “alert” to a vehicle to provide officers “probable cause” to search a car without a warrant. In Clayton Harris vs. State, Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC08-1871 (April 21, 2011) the Court provided a uniform standard statewide in Florida of what the government must prove at a Motion to Suppress the warrantless search of an automobile or person to establish to a trial court that a canine drug sniffing dog is reliable and can thus provide probable cause the warrantless search.
Prior to this decision, in three of the five Florida Districts, including the First Judicial District in which Pensacola, Milton, Shalimar, Defuniak Springs and Destin are located, all that was necessary for the prosecution to prove about the reliability of a dog’s alert was to admit into evidence at a contested motion to suppress hearing that the canine officer had been properly trained to handle the drug sniffing dog and that the dog had received certification to detect certain narcotics. The fact or issue of how many times the dog had alerted falsely had not been a relevant element that the prosecution to prove. In other words, the government had no burden to introduce evidence of the dog’s reliability in the field. In essence, this leaves the Florida motorist subject to the whims of a law enforcement officer merely claiming that his or her dog alerted to the car.
The Florida Supreme Court overruled the decisions in the First, Fourth and Fifth Districts that only required these minimum standards. Now in Florida if the warrantless search of an automobile is performed based upon probable cause provided by a dog alert, the prosecution has the burden to prove by written documentation not only the fact that the dog has been trained and certified to search the interior of the vehicle and the person but that the field performance history of the dog must be proven by the prosecution by admission of this information into the record at the hearing. The Florida Supreme Court stated the following in its holding:
In the absence of a uniform standard, the reliability of the dog cannot be established by demonstrating only that a canine is trained and certified. "[S]imply characterizing a dog as "trained` and "certified` imparts scant information about what the dog has been conditioned to do or not to do, or how successfully. . . . to adopt the view of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Districts would be to place the burden on the defendant to uncover all records and evidence that might challenge a presumption of reliability—evidence that is exclusively within the control of law enforcement authorities and, further, evidence that law enforcement agencies may choose not to record, such as in this case. Placing this burden on the defendant is contrary to the well-established proposition that the burden is on the State to establish probable cause for a warrantless search. See Doctor, 596 So. 2d at 445. Because the State must establish that the officer has a reasonable basis for believing that his or her dog is reliable in order to prove probable cause based on the dog`s alert, the State carries the burden of presenting the necessary records and evidence for the trial court to consider in adequately evaluating the dog`s reliability.”
No longer is just the word of the officer and a few documents showing the dog has been trained somewhere will be sufficient to establish the reliability of the dog’s alleged alert. The Court’s ruling will better protect the public from those few officers who merely claim that their dog alerted when in fact the dog either did not alert, or, alternatively, protect us from dogs that have a history of falsely alerting when no drugs are found within a citizen’s car.
One may think this would not apply to a law abiding citizen but if someone who has never used illicit substances in their entire life is stopped and then is told to stand back and watch an animal climb through your automobile because an officer claims that a drug dog supposedly alerted to the exterior of the vehicle and watching their car be torn apart during a search to ultimately find nothing, our citizenry should feel grateful that the Florida Supreme Court has taken a step to protect Florida motorists from what has become, unfortunately, numerous unlawful warrantless searches of their automobiles.