How Well-Trained Does A Drug-Sniffing Dog Need to Be Before a Positive Alert Creates Probable Cause?

Under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment, the police can search a car without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe there is contraband inside it. And under Illinois v. Caballes, the use of a drug-sniffing dog to alert for the presence of drugs in a car is not a Fourth Amendment search. As a result, the police often bring out the dogs to a traffic stop and see if the dog alerts: Under the Fourth Amendment, the police can search the car if the dog’s positive alert amounts to probable cause. But this raises a question: Just how well-trained does a dog need to be before its alert will trigger probable cause? And how do you know how reliable the dog is? In just the last week, I’ve noticed an interesting split emerge on the question.

First, last Friday, the Tenth Circuit adopted the view that an up-to-date certification of the dog’s prowess at finding drugs is enough to satisfy the requisite level of reliability, at least if the certifying authority isn’t challenged. The case is United States v. Ludwig (Gorsuch, J., joined by Judge Murphy and Judge Tymkovich). From the opinion:

[I]t surely goes without saying that a drug dog’s alert establishes probable cause only if that dog is reliable. See id. at 1283. But none of this means we mount a full-scale statistical inquisition into each dog’s history. Instead, courts typically rely on the dog’s certification as proof of its reliability. See id.; United States v. Kennedy, 131 F.3d 1371, 1378 (10th Cir.1997) (“[W]ith a canine, the reliability should come from the fact that the dog is trained and annually certified to perform a physical skill.”) (quotation omitted). After all, it is safe to assume that canine professionals are better equipped than judges to say whether an individual dog is up to snuff. And beyond this, a dog’s credentials provide a bright-line rule for when officers may rely on the dog’s alerts—a far improvement over requiring them to guess whether the dog’s performance will survive judicial scrutiny after the fact. Of course, if a credentialing organization proved to be a sham, its certification would no longer serve as proof of reliability. But the judicial task, we hold, is so limited: to assessing the reliability of the credentialing organization, not individual dogs. And in this case there is no suggestion that the California Narcotic Canine Association, the organization that credentialed the drug dog in this case, is all smoke and mirrors. [FN: This is not to say that a dog’s alerts are necessarily unreliable just because the dog lacks an acceptable certification. An uncertified dog’s accuracy could still, in theory at least, be established by examining its training history and record for reliability. Our point is that this is a needless exercise when, as here, the dog has been certified by an organization whose bona fides are unchallenged.]

The Tenth Circuit also noted that while probable cause isn’t and even shouldn’t be a numerical concept — citing some dubious scholarship along the way — even if probable cause were to be treated as a numerical concept, the evidence in that case was enough that the dog was reliable:

[T]he dog’s records—spanning some 200 pages in the record and covering 7 years’ worth of data—reveal that its alerts have identified a seizable quantity of drugs . . . 58% of the time. . . . While we hesitate to get into the business of affixing figures on probable cause, if we were pushed to do so we would hold this to be enough. After all, probable cause doesn’t require an officer’s suspicion about the presence of contraband to be “more likely true than false.” Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 742 (1983); United States v. Padilla, 819 F.2d 952, 962 (10th Cir. 1987); see also United States v. Garcia, 179 F.3d 265, 269 (5th Cir. 1999) (“[T]he requisite ‘fair probability’ is something more than a bare suspicion, but need not reach the fifty percent mark.”) . . . .

Contrast the Tenth Circuit’s analysis with a new opinion of the Florida Supreme Court, handed down last Thursday, Harris v. State. Harris specifically rejects the view that an up-to-date certification of the dog is enough:

[W]e hold that evidence that the dog has been trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish the dog‘s reliability for purposes of determining probable cause— especially since training and certification in this state are not standardized and thus each training and certification program may differ with no meaningful way to assess them.

Accordingly, we conclude that to meet its burden of establishing that the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the dog to be reliable in order to establish probable cause, the State must present the training and certification records, an explanation of the meaning of the particular training and certification of that dog, field performance records, and evidence concerning the experience and training of the officer handling the dog, as well as any other objective evidence known to the officer about the dog‘s reliability in being able to detect the presence of illegal substances within the vehicle. To adopt the contrary view that the burden is on the defendant to present evidence of the factors other than certification and training in order to demonstrate that the dog is unreliable would be contrary to the well-established proposition that the burden is on the State to establish probable cause for a warrantless search. In addition, since all of the records and evidence are in the possession of the State, to shift the burden to the defendant to produce evidence of the dog‘s unreliability is unwarranted and unduly burdensome.

[T]he 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. We first note that there is no uniform standard in this state or nationwide for an acceptable level of training, testing, or certification for drug-detection dogs. . . .

In the absence of a uniform standard, the reliability of the dog cannot be established by demonstrating only that a canine is trained and certified. “[S]imply characterizing a dog a ‘trained‘ an ‘certified‘ imparts scant information about what the dog has been conditioned to do or not to do, or how successfully.” Matheson, 870 So. 2d at 14. In other words, whether a dog has been sufficiently trained and certified must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. . . .

[A] necessary part of the totality of the circumstances analysis in a given case regarding the dog‘s reliability is an evaluation of the evidence concerning whether the dog in the past has falsely alerted, indicating that the dog is not well-trained, or whether the alerts indicate a dog who is alerting on a consistent basis to residual odors, which do not indicate that drugs are present in the vehicle. Accordingly, evidence of the dog‘s performance history in the field—and the significance of any incidents where the dog alerted without contraband being found—is part of a court‘s evaluation of the dog‘s reliability under a totality of the circumstances analysis.8 In particular, when assessing the factors bearing on the dog‘s reliability, it is important to include, as part of a complete evaluation, how often the dog has alerted in the field without illegal contraband having been found.

Is this dog going to sniff its way to the Supreme Court? Perhaps. Stay tuned.