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U.S. Supreme Court Limits the Use of Drug-Sniffing Dogs in Win For Fourth Amendment Rights

March 27, 2013 Criminal Law and Procedure

In the case of Florida v. Jardines, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government’s use of a drug-sniffing dog to investigate the home and surrounding area is an unconstitutional  “search” under the Fourth Amendment in a win for privacy rights.

In 2006, two detectives brought a drug-sniffing dog to the front porch of Florida resident Jardines. The dog sniffed around the front porch of the home and then sat down near the base of the front door, indicating the presence of odors produced from drugs. The police then obtained a search warrant on the basis of this evidence, searched Jardine’s home, and seized several marijuana plants.

Jardines moved to suppress the evidence in trial court on the basis that the use of the drug-sniffing dog constituted an unreasonable search. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, but the Florida Supreme Court agreed with the trial court.

Related: Florida v. Harris: Drug-Sniffing Dogs And Probable Cause

The Supreme Court took the case to determine whether the use of the drug-sniffing dog on a home’s front porch was a search under the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees that the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” When the government has made an unlicensed physical intrusion upon these areas a search has occurred. Evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution may not be admitted into evidence at trial.

Related:  Placement of a GPS Device on a Vehicle is an Unconstitutional Search under the Fourth Amendment

The home itself is afforded the highest protection under the Fourth Amendment. In addition, the area “immediately surrounding and associated with the home,” known as curtilage, is considered part of the home. There is no question that the front porch of a home is part of the curtilage.

As the police were in a constitutionally protected area, the Court must determine whether it was an unlicensed physical intrusion. A license to intrude may be implied from the standards of everyday life. People routinely knock on doors and are either asked to come in or to leave. Think of solicitors and trick-or-treators. As such, police may approach a home without a warrant and knock on the door in the same way that ordinary civilians may do.

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However, bringing a trained dog to sniff around the front of the home in order to conduct an investigation would be startling and disruptive for the homeowner. People sometimes knock on doors even where the knock would be unwelcome, but people do not bring dogs to investigate the home before knocking or asking permission. No license for this activity can be implied from everyday life.

Therefore, the Court held that “the government’s use of trained police dogs to investigate the home and its immediate surrounding is a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.” Such activity thus requires a search warrant for evidence gained in the search to be admissible in a court.

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