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In Florida, is a Drug Dog’s Signal a Sufficient Basis for the Police to Search?

Drug dogs (also referred to as canines or K-9’s) are used in Jacksonville by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department and all over Florida. They are commonly used to walk around a vehicle that has been stopped by police to determine if the odor of marijuana, cocaine or other drugs is present. If the drug dog alerts to the odor of drugs in the vehicle (or some other container), the police will typically take that as a legal basis to conduct a search of the vehicle that complies with the Fourth Amendment search and seizure requirements.

However, the drug dog’s signal alone may not be a sufficient basis to search a vehicle. Take for example a situation where the police stopped a vehicle and asked the occupants some basic questions to which the police officer felt he received suspicious responses. The police officer then walked his drug dog around the vehicle, and the drug dog alerted to the odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. The police officer then searched the vehicle. He did not find drugs, but he found evidence related to a recent armed robbery and both occupants of the vehicle were arrested. Was this proper?

The Florida court deciding the case said no. At the motion to suppress hearing, the police officer testified that he and the drug dog were certified and well-trained and the drug dog had been very reliable in detecting drugs in the past. However, the police officer testified that he did keep specific records as to the drug dog’s reliability and denied that the drug dog ever gave a false alert explaining that if the drug dog alerted and no drugs were found, that must mean that drugs had recently been present and the odor remained.

The court said this was not enough to search the vehicle. The state prosecutor did not satisfy their burden by merely showing that the drug dog was certified and trained Other factors that must be considered are: the exact type of training the dog received, the standards for selecting the drug dog, the standards for the training and certification and perhaps most importantly, the drug dog’s track record in detecting the presence of drugs.

The court also rejected the idea that when a drug dog alerts and drugs are not found, it is not a false alert because it means drugs had recently been there. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The fact that a drug dog with a much keener sense of smell than a human can pick up some odor of drugs from a vehicle, without more, is not a sufficient basis to overcome the strong protections against unreasonable searches and seizures which is afforded by the Fourth Amendment.

It is, however, important to note that different courts if different parts of Florida are not in agreement regarding this issue, and the Florida Supreme Court may decide to resolve the conflicts in the future.