How far may police officers with drug-detecting canines go in sniffing around the outside of a home before obtaining a search warrant? How reliable is a dog's nose in determining probable cause to search a vehicle for contraband? Those are questions that were headed for the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, as the justices prepared to hear two appeals from the state of Florida over decisions by that state's Supreme Court to suppress evidence of drug crimes on Fourth Amendment grounds.
In the first case, Florida v. Jardines, police, acting on a tip from a citizen "crime-stopper," brought a drug-sniffing Labrador retriever to the door of a resident in the Miami area believed to be growing marijuana inside the house. The dog sniffed at the base of the door, then sat down, a signal that he had detected the odor of the contraband drug. Police then obtained a search warrant and found marijuana plants inside. Joelis Jardines was arrested and charged with possessing more than 25 pounds of marijuana and with stealing the electricity to grow it.
In ruling the search unconstitutional, the Florida Supreme Court held that the pre-warrant sniffing at the door was an "unreasonable government intrusion into the sanctity of the home." The court cited a 2001 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that banned the warrantless use of heat-sensing thermal imagers outside the home to detect the probable growing of marijuana inside. Writing for the court in that 5-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia said that when the government uses a device "not in general public use" in the surveillance of a home, "the surveillance is a 'search' and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant."
It surely may be argued that the sensitive nose of a dog trained in drug detection is a device "not in general public use." And it may be a stretch for the state to maintain that bringing a dog to the door of a home to sniff for the scent of an illegal drug is not a search.
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