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A case involving a drug-detecting dog leads to a broader definition of probable cause for searches by law enforcement officials.
Florida v. Harris
One summer afternoon in 2006, Clayton Harris was driving his pickup truck through Liberty County, west of Tallahassee. The truck’s expired license plate caught the attention of Deputy Sheriff Bill Wheetley, who signaled for Harris to pull over.
After Harris stopped his vehicle, the expired tag became the least of his legal troubles. Wheetley, who noticed an open beer can in one of the truck’s cup holders, testified later that Harris was shaking and breathing heavily and looked “visibly nervous.” When Wheetley requested Harris’ consent to search the truck, Harris refused.
Enter Aldo, Wheetley’s drug-detecting canine partner.
Wheetley walked the German shepherd around the truck. In the area of the driver’s side door handle, Aldo stopped and signaled that he smelled drugs. The deputy interpreted this as probable cause and searched the truck without Harris’ permission.
Wheetley’s search turned up a variety of items, including 200 pseudoephedrine pills, 8,000 matches, hydrochloric acid, antifreeze and iodine crystals — ingredients for making methamphetamine, the illegal drug known as meth. Wheetley arrested Harris, who was charged with possession of pseudoephedrine with the intent to manufacture methamphetamine.
The search of Harris’ truck raised an important legal question: Is a signal from a law enforcement dog enough to justify a legal search? Harris’ legal team said “no” and challenged the search’s validity. Multiple courts weighed in, including the Florida Supreme Court, which said Aldo’s alert wasn’t enough by itself to constitute probable cause. The court ruled that additional information is needed to justify a search, including records of a dog’s on-the-job performance to determine the dog’s reliability. Law enforcement authorities then argued that the Florida court’s ruling made it harder for them to use dogs to discover illegal drugs.
The definitive answer came seven years after the Liberty County traffic stop. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Aldo’s signal was adequate to create probable cause. In reversing the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the Florida court’s standards were “inconsistent with the flexible, commonsense standard of probable cause.”
The high court’s ruling means that the reactive senses of trained police dogs in Florida and throughout the nation can justify a search by police.
“The decision makes it easier to get probable cause,” says Jon Mills, a University of Florida law professor, an attorney at Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Miami and a former Speaker of the Florida House. “The line for privacy in criminal searches is probable cause. If you don’t have probable cause, you can’t do it, so this decision broadens the ability to do searches.” Critics say the decision weakens the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and effectively turns police dogs into portable search warrants. Other critics have argued that drug-detecting dogs can make mistakes, pointing out that Aldo actually didn’t detect an illegal drug in Harris’ truck. The only drug in the truck at the time was pseudoephedrine, a common over-thecounter decongestant.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi agreed with the court, saying its decision is “paramount to preserving our law enforcement officers’ ability to use police dog alerts to locate illegal drugs and arrest those who possess them.”
As for Harris ...
The rigmarole over the search of Clayton Harris’ truck didn’t help Harris any. He went to prison on the 2006 charge and other charges. After being released, he got arrested again on drug-related charges, this time in Calhoun County. Now 42, Harris is scheduled to be released from the Florida prison system this year.