The narcotics-sniffing dog Zuul smells drugs on almost every car he checks.
But that does not necessarily mean there are drugs on board.
Half of the time, when deputies use Zuul's nose for probable cause to search a car, they do not find drugs.
Now the sniffing abilities of dogs such as Zuul are becoming a focus of drug cases in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Defense attorneys say the dogs are not accurate enough at finding drug caches to justify police searches.
Challenging those searches is the best way to beat a drug possession or drug trafficking charge. If defense attorneys can show a dog has a spotty track record, they can have the evidence against their clients thrown out of court.
That happened earlier this year in Manatee County when a judge learned that a police dog named Talon "alerted" that there were drugs in every vehicle he checked. Deputies found drugs less than 50 percent of the time. Talon has since retired.
And defense attorneys are checking the records on at least three other dogs.
"I don't think any of the dogs the Sarasota sheriff's office uses are qualified to detect drugs to get probable cause for searches," Assistant Public Defender Mark Adams said.
Zuul seems to have passed his first courtroom test. On Tuesday, a Sarasota County circuit judge ruled that Zuul's nose was reliable enough to justify searching vehicles, setting up an appeal that could wind up in the Florida Supreme Court.
Officers can call for a dog to sniff any vehicle they stop for a traffic infraction, provided the K-9 unit arrives before the traffic stop is over.
There are currently two sheriff's office dogs assigned to the Newtown area and six dogs on general patrol.
A dog makes two passes around the car, and if it alerts the officer that there are drugs, officers can search the car.
The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office trains all its dogs, which are purchased from breeders in Hungary. Then they are certified through the National Police Canine Association, completing a test by finding drugs hidden in two locations on four cars.
Prosecutors and deputies say there is always a reason for Zuul to indicate there are drugs. In each case, either drugs were found, or people riding in the car admitted to using or possessing illegal drugs in the recent past.
But residual drug detection does not count in court.
Judges have ruled that when dogs smell drugs but nothing is found in the search, it means the dog was wrong.
Essentially, it counts as a loss in the dog's track record.
Talon, who worked for the Palmetto Police Department, smelled drugs on every single vehicle during a four-month period and drugs were found less than half the time.
Circuit Judge Debra Johnes Riva said in a ruling that she had no choice but to throw out evidence in a drug case because of that track record. Talon retired in July after being diagnosed with cancer and was given to his handler.
Reflecting on Zuul's performance this week in a Sarasota County case, Circuit Judge Charles Roberts concluded that when Zuul smells narcotics, it is no different than when an officer smells marijuana coming from a car.
The occupants of the car might not have marijuana on them at the moment, but an officer can search them if he smells the drug.
It was a ruling that went over well with law enforcement officers, who had worried that Riva's earlier decision would start a case law trend that would be "catastrophic to the way we've been doing business," said Sarasota sheriff's office Sgt. Brian Olree, who oversees the K-9 division.
Olree says the issue should be simple: The dog smells drugs, the officers find drugs, the person goes to jail.
For now, each judge must make a determination on the reliability of each dog, after looking at the dog's track record.
Defense attorney Liane McCurry was the first to challenge Talon's skills and win, and she expects others to raise the same issue in future drug trials.
"I think every attorney should do that," she said.
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