Ever since Illinois v. Gates (1983), the US Supreme Court has made it clear that when it comes to Fourth Amendment searches and seizures the proper probable cause analysis is always the “totality of the circumstances” test.  Today, in Florida v. Harris, we learn that the same “flexible, common sense approach”  must apply in cases involving drug sniffing dogs.

In this case, probable cause to search existed only based on the alert of a trained detection canine during an ordinary traffic stop.  The police searched the defendant’s truck based on the alert, and while the dog turned out to be wrong about there being drugs, there was enough pseudoephedrine in the truck to charge the defendant with possession of pseudoephedrine for use in manufacturing methamphetamine.

The Florida Supreme Court, recognizing the potential abuse of the Fourth Amendment rights that would stem from allowing unreliable trained dogs to create probable cause to search, formulated a detailed checklist of the kind of evidence that the prosecution should present before the alert of a trained police dog becomes permissible evidence on which to base probable cause.  They decided specifically that the performance record of the dog, how many times the dog had alerted correctly vs. false positives, must be produced.

The US Supreme Court rejected this notion, just as it has rejected other attempts to create a more formulaic approach, in favor of the usual “totality of the circumstances” analysis.  Nothing in the opinion displaces the necessity of evidence that the dog is trained in drug-sniffing or forecloses the opportunity of the defendant to contest the reliability of the dog’s alert.

The entire opinion of Florida v. Harris can be found at this link.