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Police dog "sniff" passes Supreme Court smell test

People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that "the sniff is up to snuff" in a Florida case on how police may use dogs to track down illegal drugs.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court gave law enforcement authorities greater authority to use dogs to uncover illegal drugs, upholding a police dog's search of a truck that uncovered methamphetamine ingredients inside.

The justices said that training records had established the reliability of Aldo, a German shepherd, in sniffing out contraband, and that Florida's Supreme Court erred in suppressing evidence he found in Clayton Harris' pickup truck.

"The question - similar to every inquiry into probable cause - 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," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. "A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test."

Harris' case is one of two the court is considering this term about the validity of evidence obtained by drug-sniffing dogs. A decision has yet to be issued in the second case.

Tuesday's decision could make it easier for police to use dogs to sniff for drugs without first having to show with great specificity how well-trained the dogs were.

The court has often allowed dog searches, including of luggage at airports and cars at checkpoints. Harris' case has been watched closely by criminal defense advocates.

INCENTIVE TO TRAIN

A Liberty County, Florida, K-9 officer named William Wheetley had allowed Aldo a "free air sniff" outside Harris' truck during a June 2006 traffic stop, after the defendant had appeared nervous and refused to consent to a search inside.

Harris' lawyers challenged the search, questioning whether Aldo's certification and performance showed that he was reliable in sniffing out drugs.

But Florida's Supreme Court concluded that the state had not sufficiently established how well-trained Aldo was, or how reliable his nose was.

It therefore ruled the evidence of the methamphetamine ingredients should not have been admitted against Harris, who pleaded no contest but was given a right to appeal.

Kagan, however, wrote that Wheetley reasonably believed there was contraband inside the truck based on Aldo's training, and that Harris failed to show that Aldo was unreliable.

She said 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.

Glen Gifford, a public defender representing Harris, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gregory Garre, a former U.S. solicitor general representing Florida, said, "We're very pleased with the decision."

SEARCHING INSIDE A HOME

The other dog sniff case, also from Florida, focused on a search on the doorstep of a home by a chocolate Labrador retriever, Franky, who had a strong record of sniffing out drug stashes. The search uncovered marijuana growing inside.

During oral arguments in October, several justices expressed concern that searches uncovering illegal drugs inside homes could infringe the expectations of privacy that people have there, and which might not exist elsewhere.

In 2001, a divided U.S. Supreme Court banned the police's use of thermal imaging technology from afar to peer inside homes, because they could uncover things that deserved privacy.

The case is Florida v. Harris, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-817.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller and Doina Chiacu)

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