In two recent cases involving drug-sniffing dogs, the Florida Supreme Court has appropriately added teeth to citizen protections against unreasonable searches. One case involves the reliability of drug-sniffing dogs, and the other asks whether police can use the dogs at private homes to justify a search. In both, the majority of justices saw fit to stand with privacy rights.
In Clayton Harris vs. Florida, Liberty County sheriff's canine Officer William Wheetley and his canine partner Aldo found more than 200 pseudoephedrine pills (a precursor to methamphetamine) in a plastic bag under Clayton Harris' driver's seat during a traffic stop. Aldo had alerted to the driver's side handle of Harris' truck and, primarily on that basis, Wheetley searched Harris' vehicle over his objections.
At trial, Wheetley testified that the dog had been extensively trained to detect drugs, but the only record Wheetley kept of Aldo's field performance was when drugs were found, not when Aldo alerted and nothing illicit was discovered. Also, disturbingly, during a second stop of Harris by Wheetley months after the first, Aldo again alerted to the driver's side door handle, and that time no illegal substances were found.
In a 5-1 opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente, the high court declared that the state has the burden of demonstrating a dog's reliability by producing records that the dog and its handler are properly trained, as well as records of the dog's field performance including both successes and failures. Only then may a trial court evaluate whether it is reasonable to rely on the dog's alerts as probable cause for a search, said the court. This should enhance the professionalism of canine units.
Another positive result for civil liberties came in Joelis Jardines vs. Florida. In this case, a Miami-Dade police detective who was following up on an anonymous tip that the home of Joelis Jardines was being used to grow marijuana brought a drug-sniffing dog to the front door. The dog alerted to the presence of live marijuana plants, the detective obtained a search warrant, and marijuana was found.
But the court in a 5-2 ruling determined that the initial warrantless dog "sniff test" was a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. "Such an open-ended policy invites overbearing and harassing conduct," wrote Justice James Perry for the majority.
A strong concurring opinion by Justice Fred Lewis declared: "To sanction and approve turning the 'dogs loose' on the homes of Florida citizens is the antithesis of freedom of private property and … contrary to who we are as a free people."
Together, the court opinions have reinforced Fourth Amendment protections that have been eroded for decades by courts more interested in protecting convictions than the Constitution. It's important to our freedom that drug-sniffing dogs be reliably accurate, so that innocent people are not subject to search. And it's important that police not be able to go house to house with dogs to sniff out anything suspicious going on inside. The court was right to recognize this.