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Blockbuster law cases with lasting significance

Some of 2013’s biggest law cases …

Dog Collars

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.

Other Significant Cases

Scott v. Williams

Summary: Facing a $2-billion state budget deficit, Gov. Rick Scott sought to force the state’s 623,000 workers to contribute 3% of their pay toward the state retirement system. The governor got what he wanted. In a 4-3 vote, the Florida Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that had declared Scott’s proposed pension changes to be unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court found that the changes didn’t infringe on workers’ contractual rights or violate collective bargaining rights.

Significance: The decision shifted Florida’s retirement system from a noncontribution plan to a contributory one — a move that will save the state an estimated $861 million a year.

Public Defender, 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida v. Florida

Summary: The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s office, covering the largest and busiest of the state’s 20 judicial circuits, employs nearly 200 assistant public defenders who handle about 90,000 cases a year. Overwhelmed by its caseload, the office asked for the ability to reject some cases. The Florida Supreme Court, voting 5-2, approved the request over the objections of Attorney General Pam Bondi and some state prosecutors.

Significance: In her majority opinion, Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince wrote the case represents a “damning indictment” of the state’s representation of criminal defendants who can’t afford an attorney. The decision means private attorneys in Miami-Dade will have to pick up the slack on the cases that public defenders don’t take. Bruce Jacob, a Stetson University law professor, says the case indicates that the state’s indigent defense system is “terribly” underfunded. “There has to be more money pumped into the system if it’s going to work,” he says.

Florida v. Zimmerman

Summary: In a now infamous encounter, Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager.

Significance: While Zimmerman did not use a stand-your-ground defense during his 2013 trial and subsequent acquittal, his case opened an avalanche of stand-your-ground debates and discussions in Florida and the country. In November, a panel of Florida legislators defeated an effort to repeal Florida’s version of the law.

Tiara Condominium Association v. Marsh & McLennan Cos.

Summary: After the Palm Beach County condominium was damaged during two 2004 hurricanes — Frances and Jeanne — the condominium sued the insurance broker, claiming breach of contract over how much the insurance company — Citzens Property Insurance Company — was obligated to pay for repairs. The condo wanted $100 million, but Citizens offered only $50 million. A settlement was reached — $89 million to the condo association — but the contract dispute between the condo and the broker went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Significance: Raoul G. Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice and now a partner at White & Case in Miami, says the court’s decision “severely limits the economic loss rule, which had been expanding for many years.” The decision, he says, now limits the rule to product liability cases. He says this is important because the rule, which limits some tort claims, could previously be applied to an assortment of contract disputes.

Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics

Summary: The U.S. Supreme Court looked at patent rights pertaining to DNA.

Significance: Although the case originated in New York, the decision matters to Florida’s growing biotech sector: Researchers can’t patent naturally occurring genes, but can patent the process for isolating them. Also, synthetic genes are patentable.

Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District

Summary: In 1994, when Florida businessman Coy A. Koontz purchased a 15-acre tract in east Orange County, he proposed building a subdivision on 3.7 acres of the property. He offered to set aside the rest of the land, which was mostly wetlands, for a conservation area. When the St. Johns River Water Management District also wanted him to replace culverts on district land more than four miles away, the deal fell through, and Koontz sued.

Significance: Nearly 20 years later, the U. S. Supreme Court favored Koontz in a decision that has been praised by land-rights advocates. Others say that the decision wasn’t clear enough and will just lead to more landuse litigation.

Beckwith Electric Company v. Kathleen Sebelius

Summary: Thomas Beckwith, owner of 168-employee Beckwith Electric in Largo, challenged the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that required him to include certain contraceptives in the company’s employee health plan. Beckwith, a devout Southern Baptist, balked at the plan’s mandate that he cover the morning-after pill and intrauterine devices that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. Beckwith argued that his religious beliefs equate using the contraceptives to murdering an unborn child. Beckwith won an injunction barring the government from enforcing the mandate.

Significance: Beckwith’s suit was the 50th filed in the country against the law’s contraceptive coverage mandate and the first to be decided in Florida. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider the matter, focusing on suits involving Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma Citybased arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees, and a Pennsylvania company that makes wood cabinets.

Masone v. Aventura/ Orlando v. Udowychenko

Summary: The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in these cases in November. Each involves a motorist who received a citation for running a red light in 2009.

Significance: The court agreed to hear the cases after conflicting opinions by lower courts concerning red light camera use. This ruling will likely determine the constitutionality of red light cameras in Florida.

Town of Greece v. Galloway/Atheists of Florida v. Lakeland

Summary: The Greece, N.Y., case involves a local government’s right to open a public meeting with a religious prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing the case.

Significance: In March, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed Lakeland’s right to continue opening its city commission meetings with a prayer, so long as all faiths have an opportunity to pray. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, in Greece v. Galloway, could have the final say.

Alachua County v. Expedia

Summary: The case, currently being considered by the Florida Supreme Court, involves how much tax online travel sites, such as Expedia, must pay on Florida hotel rooms the sites sell online.

Significance: Local governments want the online sites to be taxed on the markup that the sites charge to their customers. Because that’s not happening now, Alachua County officials estimate they lose $100,000 a year in tax revenue.