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Criminal Practice: FL – Drug Dog’s Alert Insufficient, Standing Alone, to Establish Probable Cause to Search


A drug dog’s alert is not sufficient in itself for probable cause. The state carries the burden of proving the dog’s reliability, including training and false positives. Harris v. State, 2011 Fla. LEXIS 953 (Fla. April 21, 2011):

When will a drug-detection dog’s alert to the exterior of a vehicle provide an officer with probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the interior of the vehicle? That is the question in this case, and the answer is integral to the constitutional right of all individuals in this state to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The issue of when a dog’s alert provides probable cause for a search hinges on the dog‘s reliability as a detector of illegal substances within the vehicle. We hold that the State may establish probable cause by demonstrating that the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the dog to be reliable based on the totality of the circumstances. Because a dog cannot be cross-examined like a police officer on the scene whose observations often provide the basis for probable cause to search a vehicle, the State must introduce evidence concerning the dog’s reliability. In this case, we specifically address the question of what evidence the State must introduce in order to establish the reasonableness of the officer‘s belief—in other words, what evidence must be introduced in order for the trial court to adequately undertake an objective evaluation of the officer’s belief in the dog’s reliability as a predicate for determining probable cause.

. . .

… We hold the fact that a drug-detection dog has been trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to demonstrate the reliability of the dog. To demonstrate that an officer has a reasonable basis for believing that an alert by a drug-detection dog is sufficiently reliable to provide probable cause to search, the State must present evidence of 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 trial court must then assess the reliability of the dog’s alert as a basis for probable cause to search the vehicle based on a totality of the circumstances. Because in this case the totality of the circumstances does not support a probable cause determination, the trial court should have granted the motion to suppress. We remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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