Drug Dog's Incorrect Signal Can Give Police Probable Cause
Other times, no probable cause appears because the driver seems sober, is dressed like a professional, is respectful and does not seem overly nervous in the presence of a police officer.The Point of This Article: A search of a vehicle by a drug detection dog is proper even if the dog’s signal to police that there are drugs in the car is mistaken. In the case here, the search found no drugs, but materials to produce meth and the search was upheld because the driver was nervous and this provided probable cause to search the car. We think this ruling is seriously flawed.
On June 24, 2006, Officer William Wheatley of the Liberty County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office pulled over Clayton Harris because his truck had an expired license plate. Wheatley had Aldo, a German shepherd trained to detect certain narcotics (methamphetamine, ecstasy, heroin, marijuana and cocaine), with him.
Wheatley described Harris as unable to sit still, very nervous, shaking and breathing rapidly. Wheatley also noticed an open beer can in Harris’ truck cup holder.
Wheatley asked Harris for consent to search the car. Harris refused. Wheatley then brought Aldo out of the police car and walked him around the car for a “free air sniff.”
Aldo allegedly then demonstrated those behaviors he was taught to show when he smelled any of the drugs he was trained to detect. Aldo sat by Harris’ car door, indicating he believed the smell came from inside the truck. Wheatley concluded he then had probable cause to search the car and proceed to do so.
No drugs were found.
However, Wheatley did find 200 loose pseudoephedrine pills, 8,000 matches, a bottle of hydrochloric acid, two bottles of antifreeze and a coffee filter filled with iodine crystals. All such items are common ingredients to produce methamphetamine.
Wheatley then arrested Harris and administered proper Miranda warnings. Harris then confessed that he routinely cooked methamphetamine and used it every few days.
The State of Florida then charged Harris with possessing pseudoephedrine for use in manufacturing methamphetamine.
Harris moved to suppress the evidence seized, meaning he asked the judge to throw out the evidence seized by Officer Wheatley. Harris argued that Aldo had not given a Wheatley probable cause for a search. After all, Aldo was wrong. No drugs were found. Harris also argued that Aldo’s certification for narcotics detection had expired a year before Wheatley pulled over Harris. Harris' lawyer also criticized police records because police kept no records of alerts that did not result in an arrest.
The Florida Supreme Court reversed, holding that Wheatley lacked probable cause to search Harris’ truck. The State of Florida then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court then took on new significance, as it was going to declare law that would become applicable to all states, including California (which is why this article is being written!).
The Supreme Court then reversed the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling. Florida v. Harris (2013 DJDAR 2229).
The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that “a police officer has probable cause to conduct a search when the facts available to him would warrant a person of reasonable prudence to act.” In the case of Aldo, although his training and testing records were not perfect, Aldo’s reliability was otherwise good. Therefore, there was a common-sense “fair probability” that drugs were indeed inside the truck and thus, probable cause to search did exist. The Supreme Court refused to adopt rigid rules, such as standard concerning a drug-detecting dog’s certification currency, and instead looked to the “totality of the circumstances,” which in this case included Harris’ fidgeting, heavy breathing and nervous demeanor.
For more information about drug-sniffing dogs and the Fourth Amendment in general, click on the following articles:
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