* Dog's alert gave police probable cause to search
* Unanimous decision on reliability of Aldo's nose
(Recasts, adds details from opinion and case history)
By Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON, Feb 19 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled
on Tuesday that "the sniff is up to snuff" in a Florida case on
how police may use dogs to track down illegal drugs.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court gave law
enforcement authorities greater authority to use dogs to uncover
illegal drugs, upholding a police dog's search of a truck that
uncovered methamphetamine ingredients inside.
The justices said that training records had established the
reliability of Aldo, a German shepherd, in sniffing out
contraband, and that Florida's Supreme Court erred in
suppressing evidence he found in Clayton Harris' pickup truck.
"The question - similar to every inquiry into probable cause
- is whether all the facts surrounding a dog's 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," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.
"A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test."
Harris' case is one of two the court is considering this
term about the validity of evidence obtained by drug-sniffing
dogs. A decision has yet to be issued in the second case.
Tuesday's decision could make it easier for police to use
dogs to sniff for drugs without first having to show with great
specificity how well-trained the dogs were.
The court has often allowed dog searches, including of
luggage at airports and cars at checkpoints. Harris' case has
been watched closely by criminal defense advocates.
INCENTIVE TO TRAIN
A Liberty County, Florida, K-9 officer named William
Wheetley had allowed Aldo a "free air sniff" outside Harris'
truck during a June 2006 traffic stop, after the defendant had
appeared nervous and refused to consent to a search inside.
Harris' lawyers challenged the search, questioning whether
Aldo's certification and performance showed that he was reliable
in sniffing out drugs.
But Florida's Supreme Court concluded that the state had not
sufficiently established how well-trained Aldo was, or how
reliable his nose was.
It therefore ruled the evidence of the methamphetamine
ingredients should not have been admitted against Harris, who
pleaded no contest but was given a right to appeal.
Kagan, however, wrote that Wheetley reasonably believed
there was contraband inside the truck based on Aldo's training,
and that Harris failed to show that Aldo was unreliable.
She said it was enough that a dog's "satisfactory
performance" in a certification or training program provided
sufficient reason for an officer to trust its alert, even though
errors "may abound" when dogs get put to the test in the field.
"Law enforcement units have their own strong incentive to
use effective training and certification programs, because only
accurate drug-detection dogs enable officers to locate
contraband without incurring unnecessary risks or wasting
limited time and resources," Kagan wrote.
Glen Gifford, a public defender representing Harris, did not
immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gregory Garre, a former U.S. solicitor general representing
Florida, said, "We're very pleased with the decision."
SEARCHING INSIDE A HOME
The other dog sniff case, also from Florida, focused on a
search on the doorstep of a home by a chocolate Labrador
retriever, Franky, who had a strong record of sniffing out drug
stashes. The search uncovered marijuana growing inside.
During oral arguments in October, several justices expressed
concern that searches uncovering illegal drugs inside homes
could infringe the expectations of privacy that people have
there, and which might not exist elsewhere.
In 2001, a divided U.S. Supreme Court banned the police's
use of thermal imaging technology from afar to peer inside
homes, because they could uncover things that deserved privacy.
The case is Florida v. Harris, U.S. Supreme Court, No.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller and