With 220 million olfactory cells, dogs have historically been utilized to assist law enforcement with their unique ability to sniff out the bad guys. Our noses, with a mere 5 million olfactory cells, seem useless in comparison.
Trained police dogs are used to locate criminal suspects and detect drugs. During a traffic stop, an officer must have probable cause or your permission to search your car. The Fourth Amendment bans unreasonable searches.
But the U.S. Supreme Court decided this week that a police dog doesn’t need to have a proven track record in reliable scent detection to justify a search of your car. In doing so, it overturned a Florida Supreme Court decision.
The case came from Liberty County in the Panhandle after Officer William Wheetley stopped Clayton Harris for driving with an expired tag. He thought Harris seemed nervous. When Harris refused a search of his truck, Wheetley brought out Aldo, his German shepherd, and the dog alerted to the driver side door.
Officer Wheetley used Aldo’s alert as probable cause to search the truck. The officer found the ingredients to make methamphetamine. Harris was convicted, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The Florida court said there is much evidence to show dogs often make mistakes or are influenced by their handlers.
Our justices didn’t have to look far for this reasoning. In the early 1980s, another German shepherd named Harass II was alleged to have amazing CSI abilities. The testimony of his handler, former trooper John Preston, resulted in 100 criminal convictions across the country, including many in Florida.
It was later determined that Preston was a charlatan who fraudulently used his dog to help convict many innocent men. Among them were Bill Dillon, who spent 27 years in a Florida prison for a murder he did not commit, and Wilton Dedge, who served 22 years for a rape he did not commit.
The men were exonerated and finally free after DNA evidence contradicted Preston’s wonder dog and his testimony, thanks to the Innocence Project. The Brevard County judge who eventually exposed Preston as a fraud wrote: “In short, I believe that Preston was regularly retained to confirm the state’s preconceived notions about cases.”
Dogs, like people, are fallible. The Florida Supreme Court had it right when it said the standard should be high for using dogs in searches. It said the state must introduce the dog’s training and certification records, field performance records, information on the handler’s training and any other objective evidence about the dog’s reliability.
The ruling involving Aldo is one of two Florida dog-sniff cases before the nation’s high court. The justices will rule later this year on a second case – whether an officer may bring a police dog to your door in the hopes the animal might detect narcotics.
Our constitutional rights and our freedoms are much too precious to allow for the “more flexible, all-things-considered approach” with canine searches that the U.S. Supreme Court suggested in its decision this week. We should have high standards for all our law enforcement officers, even the four-legged kind.
Formerly a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and Orlando Sentinel, Susan Clary is a freelance writer living in Winter Park. She can be reached at email@example.com.