Supreme Court to give commands to police for using K-9s in searches in Florida

Greg Kahn/Staff 
 Police officer Charles Ankenbauer and his German shepherd, Shadow, have been a team at the Naples Police Department for more than eight years. Shadow, 10, will retire from police duty this year. The drug dog performs about 500 searches a year for the police department.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Naples Daily News

Greg Kahn/Staff Police officer Charles Ankenbauer and his German shepherd, Shadow, have been a team at the Naples Police Department for more than eight years. Shadow, 10, will retire from police duty this year. The drug dog performs about 500 searches a year for the police department.

— Each Wednesday, Shadow sniffs around the outside of empty cars and cars with cheeseburgers trapped inside, looking for stashes of drugs.

Skipping over the decoys, the Naples police K-9 moves around the cars, sniffing until he gets close. Then, his breathing gets heavier and the dog sits, sending a sign to officers that he's found what they've hidden.

The sessions happen every week, meant to keep Shadow's nose sharp for real traffic stops. Including the weekly training, Naples' only police dog has done roughly 500 drug searches a year for the past eight years, said his handler, officer Charles Ankenbauer.

"He's been doing it for so long, he could almost do it without me," Ankenbauer said. "Just like anything you do, you improve on it."

Ten-year-old Shadow is expected to retire by year's end, but by that time two Florida cases pending in the U.S. Supreme Court could change how his K-9 replacement conducts searches.

One case is about whether a drug dog's credentials must be considered before its sniff can be considered probable cause to search a vehicle. The Supreme Court also will hear a second Florida case to decide if a drug dog's sniff at the door of a private residence is a search requiring probable cause under the Fourth Amendment.

Defense attorneys think the rulings could put more of a burden on prosecutors relying on evidence discovered by a narcotics K-9.

"We're somewhat anticipating change in the law," said Landon Miller, a Naples-based criminal defense lawyer. "I just think people finally recognize that the dogs are fallible and do have their own mistakes that they make."

Judges in Florida said prosecutors must show evidence that their dogs are accurate by giving information about their training, experience and reliability. Evidence could be introduced about so-called false positives given by K-9s, which are explained differently by law enforcement officers and defense attorneys.

If a K-9 gives a positive alert but there are no drugs found in the car, the dog could be picking up on the smell of residual odors or marijuana traces on the floor, said Naples police Lt. Ralph Anthony, who oversees the K-9 division.

But attorney Miller argues it could be a dog picking up a handler's "subtle clues" and subconsciously giving an alert.

"I think they're unreliable ... The dogs are there to please," he said.

According to local law enforcement, most police dogs and their handlers go through extensive training. Like Shadow, the 25 K-9s at the Lee County Sheriff's Office go through an average of 16 hours a month, which is on par with most agencies, said Sgt. Frank Glover, who supervises the K-9 division.

To certify under the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, K-9 teams must complete 400 hours of approved training and complete a proficiency exam overseen by an outside evaluator. National Police Canine Association certification requires similar testing, and a dog must accurately sniff at least three out of four drug finds, in both vehicles and rooms, to pass.

While K-9s are commonly used to sniff vehicles during traffic stops, many agencies have backed away from using them at private residences unless there is a search warrant.

"Basically, you'll find case law that goes back and forth because of what the judges do," Glover said. "The one on the houses has gone back and forth: 'Yes you can,' 'No you can't.'"

In Naples, Shadow is only used at houses if officers have obtained a search warrant, Anthony said.

"If there's a question of constitutionality, we'll err on the side of caution," he said.

Although no dates have been set for the two Florida-based cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Glover said he and the rest of the K-9 department in Lee County will be watching for the ruling.

"When big case law comes out, we get it, we follow it, we read it to see if there's something we need to do differently," he said.

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