The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the use of well-trained police dogs to conduct vehicle searches for drugs and contraband. The case of Florida v. Harris brought into question whether or not a positive “hit” from a trained police dog constitutes probable cause for a search.
In this case Clayton Harris was pulled over for a routine traffic stop. The officers observed that Harris was nervous and saw an open beer car in the car. When Harris refused the search of his vehicle, the officers had a police dog conduct a sniff test. The dog, named Aldo, alerted the police officer to a scent at the driver’s side door handle. The officer used this alert to establish probable cause to search the vehicle and subsequently found ingredients used in manufacturing methamphetamine inside the car. Harris was arrested and charged with illegal possession of those drugs. While out on bail, Harris was stopped again and Aldo was used to conduct another sniff test. Aldo alerted the officer once again to the driver’s door handle but a search of the vehicle turned up nothing this time. The officer at these two stops testified in court to his and Aldo’s extensive training in drug detection and provided training and testing records supporting the dog’s reliability to detect drugs.
Harris was charged and plead no contest for the initial stop but his conviction was later reversed. The Florida high court concluded that the police department’s affirmations that the dog was well trained were not sufficient to establish probable cause for searching the vehicle. However, the Supreme Court disagreed and concluded that Aldo’s training records and search history was adequate to provide the officers probable cause.
Many civil rights activists argue that in the past the Supreme Court has considered the dog sniff test to be unreliable and asserted that it should not be considered a “search” under the fourth amendment. However, as homeland security issues become more prevalent and disconcerting, it will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court starts giving law enforcement more leeway in determining probable cause for searches.