Dog sniff search ruled unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that law enforcement officers may not bring drug sniffing dogs onto a suspect's property to search for evidence without first getting a warrant. The Court's 5-4 decision in Florida v. Jardines is likely to impact the way that police officers conduct investigations of possible crimes involving drugs.

Facts of Jardines

On the morning of December 5, 2006, Miami police officers set up a surveillance operation outside the home of Joelis Jardines with help from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Officers had received an anonymous tip that Jardines' home was the location of a marijuana grow house. A detective approached the front door of the home with his trained dog, Franky, who sniffed at the base of the door and alerted to the presence of marijuana as he was trained.

Citing to Franky's sniff test, police obtained a warrant to search Jardines' house. When they searched the home, police found 179 marijuana plants and arrested Jardines as he attempted to escape out of the back door. Authorities charged him with drug trafficking and several other crimes.

At trial, Jardines' attorney challenged the propriety of the police search, arguing that the initial dog sniff constituted an unlawful search. The trial court agreed, but its decision was overturned on appeal. The Florida supreme court, however, agreed with the trial court that the sniff was improper.

Although split, the Supreme Court's decision affirms the notion that police may not, without a warrant based on probable cause, loiter around a private home, "trawling for evidence." Justice Antonin Scalia, who was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wrote the decision for the majority. In her concurring opinion, Justice Kagan pointed out that police dogs are highly trained, highly specialized devices used by police to discover items that are not in plain sight. The use of a police dog outside a home without a warrant does, indeed, constitute a violation of privacy.

The dissenting Justices expressed concern that the Court's ruling goes too far. Justice Samuel Alito, for example, pointed out in his dissent that mail carriers do not trespass on a person's home when they step onto the porch to deliver mail. In his opinion, the Court's decision marks a significant expansion of the expectation of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment.

If you are facing charges for a drug crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. A knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer can help you protect your rights.