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Florida Supreme Court tosses evidence detected by drug-sniffing dogs

TALLAHASSEE — Citing a lack of state standards for drug-sniffing dogs, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday tossed out evidence a canine detected against a Panhandle man.

The 5-1 decision will make it more difficult for prosecutors to get court approval to use evidence sniffed out by trained dogs. But it shouldn't hamper the ability of police to use the animals, said Assistant State Attorney Ted Daus, who specializes in drug cases in Broward County.

"Because a dog cannot be cross-examined like a police officer on the scene whose observations often provide the basis for probable cause to search a vehicle, the state must introduce evidence concerning the dog's reliability," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the court.

Given the lack of statewide standards for single-purpose, drug-detecting dogs, training certificates and records aren't enough, Pariente wrote.

Prosecutors also must present evidence including field performance records and an explanation of each dog's training. Proof of the experience and training of the officer handling the dog also is needed. Further, it's the state's responsibility to prove a dog is reliable, not the defendant's burden to show otherwise, but Daus said that's not really a change.

The prosecutor said the high court has not changed the standards for the dogs, but it has increased the proof needed to verify their reliability. He said it will turn what has been a 15- to 20-minute procedure into one that may take a couple of hours.

"Now, I have to put the proof in the pudding," Daus said.

Chief Justice Charles Canady dissented.

"The majority demands a level of certainty that goes beyond what is required by the governing probable cause standard," Canady wrote. He added the dogs will need "to be virtually infallible."

The U.S. Supreme Court approved drug-sniffing dogs to check vehicles during routine traffic stops in 2005, but their accuracy has remained an issue.

The Oregon Supreme Court also set reliability criteria in a pair of rulings earlier this month, and a Chicago Tribune analysis of Illinois data in January showed the dogs are wrong more often than they are right.

Last week, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in another case that police must get a warrant before using drug-sniffing dogs at the front door of a home.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said she would appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her office had no immediate comment on the latest decision.

It reversed a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that had upheld a judge's refusal to suppress drug evidence obtained against Clayton Harris during a 2006 traffic stop in Liberty County .

Sheriff's Deputy William Wheetley's dog Aldo alerted to the driver's side door handle after Harris refused to consent to a search of his truck. Wheetley found more than 200 pseudoephedrine pills under the driver's seat and 8,000 matches in eight boxes on the passenger's side. A later search turned up muriatic acid in a toolbox. All three items are used to make methamphetamine. Two months later, Wheetley again stopped Harris for a traffic infraction and Aldo again alerted to the door handle, but this time no illegal drugs were found.

Florida Supreme Court tosses evidence detected by drug-sniffing dogs 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 10:18pm]
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