Florida v. Harris

Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States on February 19, 2013.

A recent decision by the United State Supreme Court offered clarification for defendants who wish to challenge probable cause obtained through use of a narcotics K9. After Harris' probable cause motion was denied by the circuit court, the Florida Supreme Court reversed and found lack of probable cause — setting forth strict guidelines for determining the reliability of narcotics K9s.

Defendant Harris was stopped by a Florida sheriff's deputy for expired plates. Approaching the vehicle the deputy noted that Harris was extremely nervous and had an open can of beer in the cup holder (interestingly, the open can of beer was not an issue in the discussion of probable cause to search the vehicle). Based on Harris' demeanor, the deputy retrieved his narcotics K9 from his vehicle. During a free air sniff, the K9 alerted on the driver's door handle. The deputy determined he had probable cause for a search of the vehicle and proceeded to search the truck. The search of the truck did not uncover any narcotics of which the K9 was trained to detect; however, the deputy did locate the ingredients for making methamphetamines. Harris challenged the search of his vehicle for lack of probable cause based on the K9's alert because no narcotics for which the K9 was trained to search were found in his truck. Harris further challenged the deputy's lack of records pertaining to false alerts by the K9. Harris did not challenge, or offer evidence to dispute, the K9's training and certifications.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that training records are not the "gold standard" in determining the reliability of narcotics K9s. In its ruling, the Court stated that a probable cause determination arising from a narcotics K9 should be treated as any probable cause determination which is akin to a "fair probability" upon which "reasonable and prudent" persons would act. The Court clarified that a defendant should be given a hearing at which he or she can challenge the training, certification and results of a narcotics K9. A court should consider all of the evidence surrounding the alert, as well as training and certification of the K9, and, with an eye toward common sense, determine if a reasonable and prudent person would believe that a crime has occurred.