In a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Florida v. Harris, justices have affirmed the role of drug-sniffing K-9 units during traffic stops.
Our Fort Lauderdale defense attorneys are disappointed by the decision, but we also know that there may be numerous other opportunities to challenge an officer’s probable cause and therefore have certain evidence suppressed.
Some of those other opportunities will be found in situations where police failed to take in the “totality of evidence” standard in their decision to proceed with a non-consent search of a vehicle. That is, a drug-sniffing dog’s positive indication of drugs alone may not be enough to warrant a search. The officer must consider the fair probability of the presence of illegal substances based on standards that would dictate how reasonable and prudent people act.
That’s a broad standard, but it is not above challenge.
What was at issue in this case was whether police agencies had a responsibility to track the success rates of their trained K-9 units and whether a dog’s poor success rate or a failure of police to track it could be used as a basis for suppression of evidence.
The court determined that police agencies have no such obligation. Partially, the court reasoned that to track a dog’s field performance wouldn’t necessarily reflect all the dog’s false negatives or might actually overstate its false positives. The court did concede that such track records may be valuable in certain cases, but it declined to set any hard-and-fast rule. As a result, the high court overturned an earlier decision reached by the Florida Supreme Court.
Given that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that even well-trained dogs get it wrong a fair amount of the time, this is troubling.
In this case, a police officer pulled over a driver during a “routine” traffic stop. The officer reported that the driver was nervous and he was in possession of an open beer can. Still, the driver refused to consent to a search of his vehicle.
The officer responded by having his K-9 narcotic unit conduct an open-air sniff of the vehicle. The dog gave his handler a positive alert near the driver’s side door handle. The officer concluded this was enough to carry out a search of the vehicle. The search didn’t result in the officer finding anything the dog was actually trained to detect. However, the officer did find chemicals and medicine routinely used to manufacture methamphetamine.
The defendant was arrested, booked and then released on bail. While out on bail, the defendant was again stopped by the same officer, with the same K-9 unit. Once again, the dog alerted to the presence of drugs, yet none were found.
The challenge was that the dog’s history of false-positives was enough to warrant a suppression of evidence.
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided that the dog’s training and testing records was enough to support its reliability.
If you are charged with a drug crime in Fort Lauderdale, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.
Florida v. Harris, Argued Oct. 31, 2012, Decided Feb. 19, 2013, Supreme Court of the United States
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Overzealous Prosecution Should Be Met With Experienced Defense, Feb. 27, 2013, Fort Lauderdale Drug Crime Defense Lawyers