• K-9 Police Dogs
  • March 7, 2013
  • Law Firm: Best Best Krieger LLP - Riverside Office
  • Overview: The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that police did not have to extensively document the training, certification and field performance records of police dogs to use the results of an alert in court. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that requiring multiple, independent records of trained dogs and their handlers “went too far.” Instead, courts had to determine whether all the facts surrounding the case, “viewed through the lens of common sense,” gave police probable cause to believe that a search would reveal contraband. If so, the “sniff is up to snuff,” the Court wrote in its ruling last week. The dog’s satisfactory performance in a certification or training program was sufficient reason to rely on the alert in light of the circumstances.

    Training Points: The decision in Florida v. Harris overturns what could have been an onerous standard for admission of evidence obtained by use of a K-9 unit. Instead, the Court maintained a “totality of the circumstances” approach, a standard familiar to law enforcement in many other contexts. This ruling positively impacts the way evidence is obtained from other dog-related searches but it does not relieve an agency of the responsibility of deploying trained and certified dogs. Only accurate drug-detection dogs can locate contraband without incurring unnecessary risks, without wasting time and resources, and to help mitigate potential liability exposure. Beyond proper training and certification, examination of reliability in controlled tests away from the field can increase accuracy and create a documented history of ongoing training. Agencies should consider establishing reliable performance logs to document a dog’s history of detection, both in the field, and in controlled tests. It is important to note that Harris is the first of two Florida cases involving drug-detection dogs. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether police can use canines to sniff around the outside of homes to detect drugs without a warrant. That decision is expected to come later this year.

    Summary Analysis: In Florida v. Harris, drug-detection dog “Aldo” sniffed Clayton Harris’ truck during a traffic stop and alerted his officer of drugs. A search revealed ingredients to make methamphetamine. While out on bail, Harris was stopped again and Aldo alerted again, but this time no drugs were found. Harris challenged Aldo’s reliability, and argued that the alert did not give police probable cause to search. The Florida court agreed, finding that proof of Aldo’s training and certification to detect narcotics was not enough to establish reliability in court. The Supreme Court reversed the decision, stating that the dog’s reliability did not depend on some “inflexible checklist” that was not even required for human informants. Standard training and certification records were enough. The court added that defendants could challenge the evidence by asserting that the dog’s training was too lax or the certification methods faulty, but if the trained dog reliably detected drugs in a controlled setting, the court should find probable cause.