You may recall Clayton Harris as the man Florida's attorney general called "a walking drug lab" in the process of urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a search of his pickup truck based on an alert by a drug-detecting dog. The Court was happy to comply, unanimously ruling last February that a police dog's alert can be presumed to supply probable cause for a search unless the defense can offer evidence showing that the animal is unreliable. Today the Associated Press reported that the Florida Supreme Court, in response to that decision, has reinstated Harris' conviction for unlawful possession of pseudoephedrine, a methamphetamine precursor (or allergy medicine, depending on your perspective). Harris has already completed a two-year prison term for that offense, but now he can keep a felony record as a memento of the experience.
A.P. understates the faith that the justices have put in cops to vouch for their dogs, saying the Court ruled that "the police do not have to extensively document the work of drug-sniffing dogs to be able to use the results." Under Florida v. Harris, police do not have to keep any records at all of a dog's performance in the field. They merely have to assert that the dog is properly trained, leaving the defense the burden of demonstrating otherwise, which is hard to do without data on how often the animal's alerts lead to the discovery of contraband. In Harris' case, a German shepherd named Aldo reportedly alerted to his truck on two separate occasions, and neither of the ensuing searches turned up substances that Aldo was trained to detect. The prosecution argued that Aldo must have smelled traces of methamphetamine that Harris left on the door of his truck, but this supposition—a variation on the standard excuse for unsuccessful dog-triggered searches—was not only unproven but unprovable. The A.P.'s gloss leaves quite a different impression:
Aldo was trained to detect methamphetamine and other drugs and alerted his officer to the scent of drugs during a 2006 traffic stop. A search of Harris' truck turned up the ingredients needed to create methamphetamine.
To say that Aldo "alerted his officer to the scent of drugs" assumes something the government never demonstrated. Given all the ways in which dogs and their handlers can err (or lie), the assumption is reckless. Yet the Supreme Court has not only endorsed but mandated such deference, thereby giving a cop with a dog the practical power to search any vehicle he wants.