Florida v. Harris

RESPONDENT: Clayton Harris
LOCATION: Liberty County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 11-817
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court

CITATION: 568 US (2013)
GRANTED: Mar 26, 2012
ARGUED: Oct 31, 2012
DECIDED: Feb 19, 2013

Gregory G. Garre - for the petitioner
Glen P. Gifford - for the respondent
Joseph R. Palmore - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner

Facts of the case

The State of Florida charged Clayton Harris with possession of pseudoephedrine with intent to manufacture methamphetamine. At trial, Harris moved to suppress evidence obtained during a warrantless search of his car. Police searched the car during a traffic stop for expired registration when a drug detection dog alerted the officer. This dog was trained to detect several types of illegal substances, but not pseudoephedrine. During the search, the officer found over 200 loose pills and other supplies for making methamphetamine. Harris argued that the dog's alert was false and did not provide probable cause for the search. The trial court denied Harris motion, holding that the totality of the circumstances indicated that there was probable cause to conduct the search. The First District Court of Appeal affirmed, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed, holding that the State did not prove the dog's reliability in drug detection sufficiently to show probable cause.


Does 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?

Media for Florida v. Harris

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 31, 2012 in Florida v. Harris

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 19, 2013 in Florida v. Harris

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kagan has our opinion this morning in case 11-817, Florida against Harris.

Elena Kagan:

In this case, a drug detection dog alerted at a truck, signaling the drugs were inside.

The question we consider is how a Court should determine whether that kind of alert provides a police officer with probable cause to search the vehicle.

Our opinion first discusses the wrong approach and then describes the right one.

Officer William Wheetley pulled over a truck with an expired license plate while on patrol with Aldo.

A dog trained to detect certain narcotics.

After the driver, Clayton Harris, refuse to consent to a search.

Wheetley had Aldo sniffed the drug's exterior the truck's exterior.

In a way, this Court has previously approved.

Aldo alerted at the driver side door.

On that basis, Wheetley decided he had probable cause to search the truck.

And in that search, he found illegal ingredients for making methamphetamine.

Harris challenged the search is legality, arguing that Aldo's alert did not give Wheetley the probable cause to search.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed.

At first, he said that a dog's alert provides probably cause only if the dog is a reliable detector of narcotics.

And then it held that to show the dog is reliable, the state must produce extensive documentary evidence on a variety of matters including statistics about how the dog has performed in the field.

How many times the dog's alerts have lead to the discovery of drugs and how many times they have not.

Because Wheetley didn't have those records, the Court held, he didn't have a sufficient basis to search Harris's truck.

Today, we reverse that decision.

We agree that a dog must be reliable for its alert to provide probable cause for a search, but we disagree with the Florida Supreme Court about how to establish the dog's reliability.

In evaluating, whether police have probable cause, we have rejected rigid rules in favor of a flexible inquiry into the totality of the circumstances.

The Florida Supreme Court's approach was wrong first and foremost because it required the states to tick off every item in a lengthy evidentiary checklist in order to show probably cause.

That's inconsistent with our instructions to balance all the evidence relevant to reliability in a more holistic way.

Making matters worse, the Court treated records of a dog's field performance as the gold standard in evidence.

When in most cases, those records have relatively limited import.

That's because a dog might have been right to alert even if no drugs are found.

Maybe the drugs were too well-hidden or maybe they would just recently remove and the dog responded to a lingering odor.

For reasons like that, the better way to asses a dog's reliability is through the controlled testing that is a standard part of training and certification programs.

The Florida Court put too much weight on the dog's field performance and too little on its certification and training.

We make clear today that a Court should evaluate a dog's reliability in the same way it assesses probable cause and other contexts.