Will the Supreme Court’s recent cell phone search decision really protect cell phone users from improper police searches? The good news is that the Supreme Court threw out the red hearing of officer safety which law enforcement often use as an excuse in warrantless searches.
In the vast majority of cases a cell phone can not jeopardize officer safety. Yet cowardly courts would buy into the facetious arguments of prosecutors. Chief Justice Roberts noted the distinction between checking a cell phone to be certain there’s not a dangerous razor blade hidden within as opposed to roaming thru the contents of a phone to randomly find unlawful acts.
|Justice Roberts’ cell phone is safe
Further, Roberts noted that the potential for destroying incriminating evidence by remote wiping of the phone was unlikely and something that the officers could stop by simply taking out the phone battery or by slipping the phone in an aluminum case. For too many years judges have given law enforcement officers the benefit of the doubt in new technology even when logic, if not common sense, was strained.
Although the decision requires a search warrant to search the phone of a defendant for cell phone evidence Robert’s left some leeway in a “now or never” situation and even then a worst case scenario would merely be that the evidence might not be useable to gain a conviction at trial. Roberts further noted that the cell phone of today are much more than phones with the capacity to show much more of a person’s life, frame of mind, political standing and common interests.
In Florida the law has been settled for some time and at least one Tampa Bay, Florida judge had the courage to no longer allow officers to search based on a lie under oath. Last year the Florida Supreme Court made a similar decision to restrict warrantless cell phone searches when it threw out evidence gleaned from a cell phone in a robbery case. It’s good that the United States Supreme Court has now settled the issue of personal privacy rights in favor of citizens as a decision for law enforcement would have reduced the privacy of every American.
Our Florida Supreme Court was asked to decide this important canine Question of Law which has kept even your favorite crime attorney in Clearwater in suspense: When does a drug-detection dog’s alert to the outside of a vehicle provide a police officer with probable cause to search the inside of that vehicle without a search warrant?
I tend toward the view that when brave Aldo (the famous dog you’ll read about in the case below) smells so much marijuana that he slumps down while eating lots of treats from the munchies that sufficient probable cause has been established for an immediate arrest of anyone in the vicinity, the Florida Supreme Court agrees:
Officer William Wheetley and his drug-detection dog, Aldo, were on patrol. Officer Wheetley conducted a traffic stop of Harris’s truck for an expired tag. Upon approaching the truck, Officer Wheetley noticed that Harris was shaking, breathing rapidly, and could not sit still (editors note: Harris is the Defendant, not the dog.)
Officer Wheetley also noticed an open beer can in the cup holder. When Officer Wheetley asked for consent to search the truck, Harris refused. Officer Wheetley then deployed Aldo. Upon conducting a ‘free air sniff’ of the exterior of the truck, Aldo alerted to the door handle of the driver’s side.
Underneath the driver’s seat, Officer Wheetley discovered over 200 pseudoephedrine pills in a plastic bag wrapped in a shirt. On the passenger’s side, Officer Wheetley discovered eight boxes of matches containing a total of 8,000 matches. Officer Wheetley then placed Harris under arrest. A subsequent search of a toolbox on the passenger side revealed muriatic acid. Officer Wheetley testified that these chemicals are precursors of methamphetamine. After being read his Miranda Rights, Harris stated that he had been cooking meth for about one year and most recently cooked it at his home in Blountstown two weeks prior to the stop. Harris also admitted to being addicted to meth and needing it at least every few days.”
Here’s what the Court ruled:
Whether or not a drug dog’s alert to the outside of a vehicle provides an officer with probable cause to search the inside of the vehicle without a search warrant depends upon the dog’s reliability to detect illegal substances within a vehicle. In order to establish reliability the following things must be established at trial or at a hearing before the judge:
All records and evidence necessary for the trial judge to evaluate the dog’s reliability in detecting illegal substances so the trial judge can evaluate how well a dog (go Aldo go!) is trained and whether it falsely alerted during its training with a percentage of false alerts, including the dog’s successes and failures (no no no, not our Aldo!).
Sadly for our Brave Aldo, but happily for the Defendant, the Court concluded that the dog’s alert did not provide his handler with probable cause to search the inside of the truck without a search warrant because Aldo’s reliability was not established since his trainer failed to accurately keep records of Aldo’s false alerts nor was evidence presented about Aldo’s ability to detect ‘residual odors’ (my dog, Sancho, has those too).
After the case, Brave Aldo the Drug Busting Dog retired from his Police Duties to be adopted by a normal family in Tallahassee Florida. Here is a recent painting of Aldo with his new friend & master The Chief Judge of the Florida Supreme Court. Odd, but neighbors complain that the Dog constantly alerts…
|Carl Locher with his dog Tiger by Michael Archer, 1909