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Justices Reject Broad Certification for Drug-Sniffing Dogs

In a ruling with potential implications for police searches in schools, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected broad certification requirements for drug-sniffing dogs.

The justices unanimously overturned a decision by Florida's highest court that had called for greater evidence of a particular dog's performance history in the field to support giving the police probable cause to search a vehicle after the dog alerted them to the possible presence of illegal drugs.

Writing for the court in Florida v. Harris (Case No. 11-817), Justice Elena Kagan said a finding of a drug-detection dog's reliability should not depend on a state's lengthy checklist of evidentiary requirements.

"The question—similar to every inquiry into probable cause—is whether all the facts surrounding a dog's alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime," Kagan wrote. "A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test."

A ruling upholding the Florida court's requirement would have likely limited the use of drug-sniffing dogs by law enforcement, which has grown in recent years to include sweeps of school lockers, parking lots, and sometimes even student backpacks.

The court did not rule on Tuesday in a related case, Florida v. Jardines (No. 11-564), that deals with whether the warrantless use of a drug-detection dog outside of a suspected marijuana "grow house" was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

That case, argued on the same day as Harris in October, also has implications for school use of drug-detection dogs. Some civil liberties advocates argue that approving the warrantless use of such dogs outside of a home would give the police permission for sweeping use of the dogs in school hallways or outside the doors of apartments.

The Harris case decided on Tuesday involved a 2006 traffic stop of Clayton Harris's truck outside of Tallahassee, Fla. A sheriff's department officer had his drug-detection dog, Aldo, sniff around the exterior of the truck. Aldo alerted for the odor of drugs at the door's handle, and based on that, and the nervousness of Harris, the officer felt he had probable cause to search the cab of the truck, which turned up ingredients to make methamphetamines.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in Harris's favor, holding that the search evidence should have been suppressed. The court said probable cause for searches after a dog alerts may only be established after the state has proven the dog's reliability by presenting training and certification records, including field-performance records and evidence about the experience and training of the officer handling the dog.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that reasoning on Tuesday. Justice Kagan said the Florida decision treated field-performance records as a "gold standard in evidence," when most of the time they would yield relatively little information about the reliability of a particular dog. She said evidence of a dog's satisfactory performance in a certification or training program can provide sufficient basis to trust a dog's alert, although each defendant must be given an opportunity to challenge a dog's reliability, such as by cross-examining the dog's police handler.

The Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the use of drug-detection dogs in schools. In 1980, the court declined to review a federal appeals court decision that had upheld dragnets of students using such dogs. The Supreme Court's refusal to take up the issue prompted a strong dissent from Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

"I cannot agree that the Fourth Amendment authorizes local school and police officials to detain every junior and senior high school student present in a town's public schools and then, using drug-detecting, police-trained German shepherds, to conduct a warrantless, student-by-student dragnet inspection" for drugs, Justice Brennan wrote in Doe v. Renfrew.

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