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Florida Drug Sniffing Dogs, Vehicle Searches And Reliability

The Florida Supreme Court has recently established a new standard for evaluating whether dog “alerts” for the presence of drugs in a vehicle is sufficiently reliable to provide probable cause for a warrantless search of the vehicle.

What This Means

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Consequently, the amendment requires law enforcement to have probable cause before a search.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has described it, “Probable cause exists where ‘the facts and circumstances within [the officers’] knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information [are] sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that’ an offense has been or is being committed.”

In essence, the evidence the officer has at the time of the search should be the equivalent of what would convince a judge to issue a search warrant.

The standard in Florida for a dog-initiated search, before this case, was essentially no standard. Police training and certification of dogs is neither uniform, nor rigorous. The Florida courts of appeal used widely different standards to assess the validity of the searches. This ruling creates a consistent standard for all the courts and all law enforcement to follow.

The Requirements For A Florida Vehicle Search With A Dog

The court adopted a totality of the circumstances approach and they held that the State, which bears the burden of establishing probable cause, must present all records and evidence that are necessary to allow the trial court to evaluate the reliability of the dog.

The State must demonstrate the dog has been properly trained and certified; this, the court points out, is only the beginning of the analysis; before this ruling in some districts, this was the end of the analysis.

Because there is no uniform standard for training and certification of drug-detection dogs, the State must explain the training and certification, so that a trial court can evaluate how well the dog has been trained and whether the dog falsely alerts in training – and, if so, the percentage of false alerts.

Further, the State must keep and present records of the dog’s performance in the field, including the dog’s successes (alerts where contraband that the dog was trained to detect was found) and failures (“unverified” alerts where no contraband that the dog was trained to detect was found). Again, the State’s lack of recordkeeping, or the fact they only recorded “successes,” undercuts the credibility of the use of dogs.

The State then has the opportunity to present evidence explaining the significance of any unverified alerts, as well as the dog’s ability to detect or distinguish residual odors.

Finally, the State must present evidence of the experience and training of the officer handling the dog. Under a totality of the circumstances analysis, the court can then consider all of the presented evidence and evaluate the dog’s reliability.

The court has ultimately placed the burden on the State, as they have access to all the records and are in control of the complete dog training process. Law enforcement will have to significantly improve their training, recordkeeping and use of dogs in traffic stops for them to be considered constitutionally acceptable.

Anyone who has been arrested, based on a dog alert triggered search of their vehicle, should consult with a criminal defense attorney, as the validity of the probable cause for the search may now be questioned.