February 19, 2013
Court Tests Dog Sniffs With Common Sense
A unanimous Supreme Court today rejected a defendant's challenge to a dog sniff, and the evidence that it led to, ruling that,
[t]he 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.
Op. at 12. Oh, and then this: "A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test."
The case, Florida v. Harris, arose out of a defendant's challenge to a dog alert that led an officer to search his vehicle and find ingredients for manufacturing methamphetamine. But the dog, Aldo, wasn't trained to alert for the particular items that apparently triggered the alert (like pseudoephedrine). And in a surprise twist Aldo later alerted to the same vehicle, driven by the same defendant (then out on bail), but the subsequent search this time turned up nothing.
The defendant, Harris, moved to suppress, challenging Aldo's reliability. In particular, Harris claimed that Aldo was unreliable because he alerted to items that he wasn't trained to alert to (in the first stop), and because he alerted to nothing (in the second stop). The state produced evidence of Aldo's training, but Harris didn't challenge that.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled for Harris. It said that the state had to produce a wide array of evidence, including Aldo's field-performance records, in support of Aldo's reliability. This it didn't do.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Kagan wrote for the unanimous Court that the proper test is practical and common-sensical, based on the totality of the circumstances, and not on rigid rules or mechanical inquiries. In other words, the trial court should allow the parties to make their best cases on Aldo's reliability, including evidence of training and sometimes even field records, and evaluate the evidence based on the totality of the circumstances--just as it would with any other probable cause determination, using the test quoted above.
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