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US Supreme Court says dog’s alert enough to search vehicle

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases involving drug-sniffing dogs this term. Recently, Justice Elena Kagan issued the unanimous decision for the court for one of the cases. The decision for the second case is expected later this year.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kagan overturned the decision of the Florida Supreme Court and placed a certain degree of trust in the abilities of drug-detection dogs and their handlers. The case involves the right of Americans to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures," as spelled out in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The facts of the case

The case, Florida v. Harris, arose when a police officer pulled over a motorist who was driving a vehicle with an expired license plate tag. The law enforcement officer believed the driver was exhibiting strange behavior, possibly indicating he was under the influence of drugs.

The officer asked to search the vehicle, but the driver refused. The police officer then used a drug-sniffing dog to determine whether there were substances inside the vehicle. The officer reported that the dog alerted to drugs near the driver's door. Consequently, the police officer conducted a search of the vehicle.

Although the officer did not find any illegal substances in the car, he found materials used to manufacture methamphetamine. The dog had not been trained to detect the materials found in the vehicle. Nevertheless, the driver was convicted of a drug crime.

The Florida Supreme Court later reversed the conviction, though, finding that there was not sufficient evidence of the dog's ability to detect drugs. The Florida high court provided a long list of information that should be provided to prove a dog's capabilities.

The US Supreme Court's decision

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme's Court decision. Justice Kagan found that the police officer had probable cause to search the vehicle, based on the dog's alert.

The decision stated that there was enough evidence of the dog's "reliability in detecting drugs," based on "training and testing records." The court held that the Florida Supreme Court's decision was "inconsistent with the 'flexible, common-sense standard' of probable cause." Therefore, the dog's handler was not required to present all of the information set forth in the Florida high court's decision to prove the drug-sniffing dog's qualifications.

If you have been accused of a drug crime, consulting with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney is a wise step to ensure a strong defense is established on your behalf.

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