Florida Courts Rule on Automobile Searches Using Drug Dogs

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled on the standards and training required for automobile searches using drug detection dogs (Harris v. Florida, 36 Fla. L Weekly S163a (2011). This case has been applied by another Florida appellate court. In Sarasota County, the Florida Second District Court of Appeals addressed the drug detection dog’s reliability standards in Wiggs v. Florida, 36 Fla. L. Weekly D1688a (Fla. 2nd DCA 2011). In Wiggs, the drug detection dog, Zuul, gave a positive indication at criminal defendant Wiggs’ vehicle during a Florida traffic stop. The police officer searched the vehicle and found cocaine.

Wiggs challenged the Florida K9 search on the basis that “Zuul’s alert to the exterior of Wiggs’ vehicle provided probable cause to support a warrantless search of the vehicle’s interior.” Although Zuul went through over 400 hours of training and did quite well, Zuul was not so effective in the field. He only had a 29% accuracy rate. Zuul had many false positives, including several instances of identifying drugs in areas where drugs had once been but no longer were.

In Harris v. Florida, 36 Fla. L. Weekly S163 (Fla. Apr. 21, 2011), the rule established by the Florida Supreme Court states “when a dog alerts, the fact that the dog has been trained and certified is simply not enough to establish probable cause to search the interior of the vehicle and the person.” The Florida Supreme Court adopted a “totality of the circumstances approach” that places the burden of producing evidence to establish the dog’s reliability on the state.” In this case, Zuul’s detection rate was too low for the court to consider “probable cause.” Therefore, the cocaine in this case should have been suppressed.

If you have been arrested in Northeast Florida (Jacksonville and the surrounding counties) and have been subject to an automobile search, contact a Jacksonville Criminal Attorney.

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