Florida court questions canine competence

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court questioned a drug-sniffing dog's track record in a hearing to determine how competent a canine must be to justify a police search.

An attorney for a convicted drug offender urged the state's highest court to uphold an appellate ruling that a Hillsborough County deputy in 2000 improperly searched Gary Alan Matheson's car after a positive "hit" by Razor, a drug-detecting dog with a questionable professional pedigree.

During the search, officers found methamphetamines, morphine, hydrocodone and drug paraphernalia. But Matheson appealed his conviction and said the search was illegal because deputies could not reasonably depend on the dog, which though nationally certified had a history of mistakes.

"The question is whether Razor was sharp," Chief Justice Barbara Pariente chimed in during arguments.

U.S. law requires police to have probable cause to conduct a search. The state's attorney contended that Razor's training and certification alone were enough satisfy the constitutional test.

Matheson's attorney said Razor's propensity to bark up the wrong tree meant that deputies had no reason to rely upon it.

"There is a question whether all dogs are equal," Justice R. Fred Lewis said.

The case is the latest in a series of challenges to drug-sniffing dogs, which are used increasingly in law enforcement and border controls.

There are no national standards by which to judge canine competence. The U.S. Customs Services, for example, requires 100 percent accuracy to certify dogs for agency use. Other groups, including the U.S. Police Canine Association, require a 70 percent accuracy rating for certification.

"This is not a game," said Justice Harry Anstead. "This is about the state invading someone else's privacy."

The court did not indicate how quickly it would rule.