Florida v. Harris

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Procedure
  • Date Filed: February 19, 2013
  • Case #: 11-817
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Kagan, J., for a unanimous Court.
  • Full Text Opinion

A court should find probable cause for a search based on a narcotics detection dog’s alert when the State produces proof that the dog is reliable at detecting drugs in a controlled setting and the defendant fails to contest that showing.

During a traffic stop a police officer noticed an open container in Respondent’s vehicle and that Respondent appeared nervous. After Respondent declined the officer’s request to search the vehicle, the officer retrieved Aldo, a dog trained to detect the presence of illegal drugs, from his patrol car and walked him around Respondent’s vehicle in a “free air sniff.” Aldo alerted and the officer—believing he had probable cause—searched Respondent’s vehicle. The search revealed no drugs, but did reveal ingredients for making methamphetamine. Following his arrest, Respondent posted bail and was later stopped by the same officer who again used Aldo to conduct a peripheral search. Again, Aldo alerted, but this time the officer’s search revealed no contraband.

After the trial court denied Respondent’s motion to suppress, Respondent entered a conditional plea, reserving the right to appeal. An intermediate appellate court affirmed Respondent’s conviction, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. In reaching its conclusion that the officer lacked probable cause to search, the court created a rule that required the state to present records of (1) the dog’s training and certification; (2) the dog’s field performance records; and (3) the handler’s experience and training.

The Supreme Court reversed and held that the Florida Supreme Court flouted long-established precedent that recognizes “probable cause” as a fluid concept. The Court noted that because probable cause cannot be reduced to a precise definition or quantification, the Supreme Court has consistently rejected rigid rules and bright-line tests in favor of a more flexible, all-things-considered approach. By requiring the state to comply with rigid rules at a motion to suppress hearing, the Florida Supreme Court went beyond the “practical and common-sensical” probable cause standard that the Supreme Court has traditionally applied.

The Court held that “a court can presume that [a trained and certified narcotics-detection] dog’s alert provides probable cause to search” and that a motion to suppress a dog’s alert should proceed much like any other motion to suppress. In such a hearing the court must attempt to answer “whether all the facts surrounding a dog 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.”

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