Wednesday, February 20, 2013

High Court Bites Florida

Every dog has its day. But, usually not before the United States Supreme Court. Unless it's Aldo, drug-sniffing dog for the Liberty County Sheriff's Office in Florida.

On Feb. 19, Aldo and his K-9 handler William Wheetley won a landmark case as the federal High Court reversed Florida's Supreme Court, and found that Aldo's drug "sniff(ing) is up to snuff" -- reciting the court's own doggerel.

The case involved a Florida man who was driving in his truck, complete with open can of beer in the cup holder, and was pulled over by the deputy for expired plates. The deputy noticed the man was unusually nervous and asked him if he could search his pickup. The man refused. The deputy got K-9 Aldo and walked around the truck. The German shepherd, trained to sniff out heroin, cocaine, pot, ecstasy and methamphetamine, alerted -- signaling with specific behaviors -- that it smelled drugs on the truck's door handle. The deputy searched the truck and found illegal chemicals used to make meth. The man then admitted he routinely "cooked" meth and "could not go more than a few days without" using the highly addictive drug. In court the man's attorney argued that the deputy didn't have "probable cause" to search the truck, even though the drug-sniffing dog had smelled meth chemicals. The trial court disagreed, and the man pleaded the equivalent of guilty, and appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Florida's top court agreed with the man, saying the cop had insufficient cause to search the truck, and the dog's nose alone couldn't be relied on. They didn't go so far as to require the dog itself to testify, but almost. They required a ridged test to show the dog's nose was reliable. The Florida court said prosecutors "must present the dog's training and certification records, an explanation of the meaning of the particular training and certification, field performance records (including any unverified alerts) and evidence concerning the experience and training of the officer handling the dog, as well as any other objective evidence known to the officer about the dog's reliability." The court said the "dog's performance history" was critical, especially whether the K-9 "has alerted in the field without illegal contraband having been found."

Well, the U.S. Supreme Court showed the Florida judges who's top dog. The justices said Aldo had gone through extensive training as a drug sniffer. The court said the Florida Supreme Court set up a checklist for determining probable cause that was unworkable and against the High Court's own "flexible" standard, which says a reasonable person looking at the facts can determine whether "evidence of a crime is present." In other words, the dog's behavior was enough to warrant the search. "The Florida Supreme Court flouted this established approach to determining probable cause," the justices wrote. They made intellectual fun of the Florida court's logic, saying it was requiring all this history on each dog's sniffing record, but "one wonders how the court would apply its tests to a rookie dog."

You can almost hear them panting with ridicule in their opinion.

(Postscript: In reading the official biographies of justices on the U. S. Supreme Court's Web site, all are rich in legal pedigrees. None, however, mentions whether he or she is a dog owner.)

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