The United State Supreme Court today ruled in favor of the State of Florida in Florida v. Clayton Harris, deciding that police dog Aldo’s sniff constituted probable cause for Liberty County K-9 Officer William Wheetley to search Clayton’s Harris’s vehicle for illegal drugs. The Court’s decision is important to law enforcement officers throughout the nation because it clarifies the legal standards governing their reliance on drug detection dogs, a common law enforcement practice.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Florida Supreme Court’s judgment and declared, “Because training records established Aldo’s reliability in detecting drugs and Harris failed to undermine that showing, we agree with the trial court that Wheetley had probable cause to search Harris’s truck.”
“This victory is paramount to preserving our law enforcement officers’ ability to use police dog alerts to locate illegal drugs and arrest those who possess them,” stated Attorney General Pam Bondi. “The Supreme Court correctly held that a police dog’s reliability is determined through a common-sense evaluation of the relevant circumstances, rather than through a rigid set of judge-created requirements.”
Officer Wheetley pulled over respondent Harris for a routine traffic stop. Observing Harris’s nervousness and an open beer can, Wheet- ley sought consent to search Harris’s truck. When Harris refused, Wheetley executed a sniff test with his trained narcotics dog, Aldo. The dog alerted at the driver’s-side door handle, leading Wheetley to conclude that he had probable cause for a search. That search turned up nothing Aldo was trained to detect, but did reveal pseudoephed- rine and other ingredients for manufacturing methamphetamine. Harris was arrested and charged with illegal possession of those in- gredients. In a subsequent stop while Harris was out on bail, Aldo again alerted on Harris’s truck but nothing of interest was found. At a suppression hearing, Wheetley testified about his and Aldo’s exten- sive training in drug detection. Harris’s attorney did not contest the quality of that training, focusing instead on Aldo’s certification and performance in the field, particularly in the two stops of Harris’s truck. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. It held that a wide array of evidence was always necessary to establish probable cause, including field- performance records showing how many times the dog has falsely alerted. If an officer like Wheetley failed to keep such records, he could never have probable cause to think the dog a reliable indicator of drugs.
Held: Because training and testing records supported Aldo’s reliability in detecting drugs and Harris failed to undermine that evidence, Wheetley had probable cause to search Harris’s truck. Pp. 5–11.
(a) In testing whether an officer has probable cause to conduct a search, all that is required is the kind of “fair probability” on which “reasonable and prudent [people] act.” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213, 235. To evaluate whether the State has met this practical and
common-sensical standard, this Court has consistently looked to the totality of the circumstances and rejected rigid rules, bright-line tests, and mechanistic inquiries. Ibid.
The Florida Supreme Court flouted this established approach by creating a strict evidentiary checklist to assess a drug-detection dog’s reliability. Requiring the State to introduce comprehensive docu- mentation of the dog’s prior hits and misses in the field, and holding that absent field records will preclude a finding of probable cause no matter how much other proof the State offers, is the antithesis of a totality-of-the-circumstances approach. This is made worse by the State Supreme Court’s treatment of field-performance records as the evidentiary gold standard when, in fact, such data may not capture a dog’s false negatives or may markedly overstate a dog’s false posi- tives. Such inaccuracies do not taint records of a dog’s performance in standard training and certification settings, making that perfor- mance a better measure of a dog’s reliability. Field records may sometimes be relevant, but the court should evaluate all the evi- dence, and should not prescribe an inflexible set of requirements.
Under the correct approach, a probable-cause hearing focusing on a dog’s alert should proceed much like any other, with the court allow- ing the parties to make their best case and evaluating the totality of the circumstances. If the State has produced proof from controlled settings that a dog performs reliably in detecting drugs, and the de- fendant has not contested that showing, the court should find proba- ble cause. But a defendant must have an opportunity to challenge such evidence of a dog’s reliability, whether by cross-examining the testifying officer or by introducing his own fact or expert witnesses. The defendant may contest training or testing standards as flawed or too lax, or raise an issue regarding the particular alert. The court should then consider all the evidence and apply the usual test for probable cause—whether all the facts surrounding the 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. Pp. 5–9.
(b) The record in this case amply supported the trial court’s deter- mination that Aldo’s alert gave Wheetley probable cause to search the truck. The State introduced substantial evidence of Aldo’s train- ing and his proficiency in finding drugs. Harris declined to challenge any aspect of that training or testing in the trial court, and the Court does not consider such arguments when they are presented for this first time in this Court. Harris principally relied below on Wheetley’s failure to find any substance that Aldo was trained to detect. That infers too much from the failure of a particular alert to lead to drugs, and did not rebut the State’s evidence from recent training and testing.