Friday, March 1, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: Every dog has its day

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
March 1, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that as long as a drug-sniffing dog is well trained his performance on the job really doesn’t matter.

In 2006, Aldo, a drug-sniffing dog from Liberty County in Florida’s Panhandle, was working alongside his partner, and trainer, Officer William Wheetley. The two pulled over Clayton Harris because of an expired license plate.

Wheetley found Harris nervous and shaking and he refused Wheetley’s request to search his truck. Wheetley brought out Aldo, and the dog alerted to the smell of something on the driver’s side door of Harris’ vehicle.

The search failed to turn up anything that Aldo was trained to detect. However, the search did reveal loose pseudoephedrine pills, matches, a bottle of hydrochloric acid, two containers of antifreeze and a coffee filter full of iodine crystals — “all ingredients for making methamphetamine.”

Later, while Harris was free on bond he was stopped again by Wheetley. Aldo alerted again on the truck and this time nothing was found in the vehicle.

At trial, Harris’ attorney did not contest Aldo’s training; instead he focused on Aldo’s performance in the field, particularly his two incorrect alerts on his client’s vehicle.

Harris was convicted, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The Court held that field performance records showing how many times the dog falsely alerted were needed to establish probable cause.

In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Florida checklist was too high a standard. Instead, a dog-sniff alert should be treated like any other evidence police might offer to justify a search, allowing the defendant to challenge the dog's reliability in light of the "totality of the circumstances."

"The question … 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,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan. "A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test."

"And here," she continued, "Aldo's did."

Kagan wrote that it was enough that a dog's "satisfactory performance" in a certification or training program provided sufficient reason for an officer to trust its alert, even though errors "may abound" when dogs get put to the test in the field.

"Law enforcement units have their own strong incentive to use effective training and certification programs, because only accurate drug-detection dogs enable officers to locate contraband without incurring unnecessary risks or wasting limited time and resources," Kagan wrote.

It appears that every dog will have its day before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court is set to rule soon on a second drug-sniffing case from Florida. In that case, officers acting on an unverified tip brought Franky, a drug-sniffing police dog, up to a private home's doorstep, where the dog alerted for contraband. The Florida high court also barred that search.

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