Florida law enforcement officers have trained dogs to assist them in finding
evidence against persons suspected of violating Florida drug laws. These
dogs detect the scent of a specific substance with their sensitive noses,
alerting their handlers.
In two Florida cases that recently came before the United States Supreme
Court, for two different reasons, the use of drug-sniffing dogs was called
into question as a violation of suspects' constitutional rights.
Fourth Amendment rights
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section
12 of the Florida Constitution guarantee the right to be free from unreasonable
searches by police.
Searches generally require a warrant signed by a judge, though police sometimes
may lawfully proceed without a warrant. To get a warrant or, with a few
exceptions, search without one, police must have probable cause to suspect
criminal activity. The legal definition of probable cause has been reviewed
in many cases in Florida and the rest of the country.
The Florida cases
In one of the Florida cases, the Florida Supreme Court found that a suspect's
Fourth Amendment rights had been violated because the prosecutor failed
to demonstrate the police had probable cause to suspect there was criminal
activity. The Court stated Prosecutors had to establish that an officer
had probable cause to search a suspect's truck, when a drug-sniffing
dog gave an alert signal after sniffing the vehicle's exterior. In
order to satisfy this burden, the Court wrote that the prosecution had
to produce evidence showing that the officer had a reasonable basis for
believing the dog was reliable.
In deciding the seach was unlawful, the Supreme Court decided the prosecutor
failed to produce the dog's training records or other adequate evidence
about the dog's reliability in the suspect's trial. Training programs
for these dogs vary widely, and even if a dog is successful in detecting
drugs that are present, a dog can, and sometimes does, give an alert signal
when drugs are not present.
In the other Florida case, the issue was not whether there was probable
cause, but whether the suspect's right to be free of unreasonable
from unreasonable searches was violated. In this case, an anonymous tip
suggested that a suspect was growing marijuana in his home. Police took
a marijuana-sniffing dog to the house and the dog alerted outside, on
the front porch. Police used the dog's alert to persuade a judge to
issue a search warrant, and they entered and found the marijuana plants.
The Florida Supreme Court also found in favor of the suspect in this case,
mainly because there are special privacy considerations that apply to
a suspect's home, and the fact the police and the police dog entered
onto the property of the suspect without a warrant and without consent
rendered the dog sniff an unreasonable search that violated Fourth Amendment rights.
The current context
Unlike in most other states, the voters of Florida many years ago passed
a constitutional amendment that makes United States Supreme Court cases
the law in Florida in all search and seizure issues. In other words, the
Florida Supreme Court holding mentioned here will only be the law of Florida
if the US Supreme Court agrees with the Florida court's decisions.
In the states without such a provision, the highest court of that state
controls the law that protects its citizens.
While the U.S. Supreme Court considers these Florida cases, the attitudes
of Americans toward marijuana use are changing, as evidenced by new Colorado
and Washington laws making
possession of certain amounts of marijuana lawful. But federal law makes the possession
of marijuana illegal. Analysts wonder what, if any, effect, the legalization
of marijuana in some states will have on courts and legislatures throughout
Anyone in Florida who is arrested on suspicion of a
drug offense should immediately contact an attorney. A Florida defense attorney can
investigate possible violations of a person's constitutional rights
and work vigorously to defend against criminal prosecution.