Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Supreme Court Limits Use of Drug-Sniffing Police Dogs in ‘Florida v. Jardines’

(Photo: Mike Sheridan)

(Photo: Mike Sheridan)

The United States Supreme Court ruled that the use of drug-sniffing dogs constitutes a “search” that requires a warrant as prescribed in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled in Florida v. Jardines that “use of trained police dogs to investigate the home and its immediate surroundings is a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment” and therefore required a warrant.

“A police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home and knock, precisely because that is no more than any private citizen might do,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. “But introducing a trained police dog to explore the area around the home in hopes of discovering incriminating evidence is something else. There is no customary invitation to do that.”

“The home is first among equals,” Scalia wrote.

The court’s decision upholds a 2011 Florida Supreme Court ruling that barred evidence discovered at the home of Joelis Jardines. A detective had used a drug-sniffing dog to investigate the front door of Jardines’ Miami-area home after police received a tip that marijuana was being grown inside. A warrant to search the home was obtained after the dog indicated it detected the odor of marijuana inside. Police subsequently found 25 pounds (11 kg.) of marijuana in the home and Jardines was arrested.

Joining Scalia in the majority were Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The dissenting justices were Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts.

In his dissent, Justice Alito rejected the notion that approaching the front door of a home constituted trespass.

“Gathering evidence– even damning evidence– is a lawful activity that falls within the scope of the license to approach,” he wrote. “And when officers walk up to the front door of a house, they are permitted to see, hear and smell whatever can be detected from a lawful vantage point.”

“A reasonable person understands that odors emanating from a house may be detected from locations that are open to the public,” Alito wrote. “A reasonable person will not count on the strength of those odors remaining in the range that, while detectable by a dog, cannot be smelled by a human.”

The concept of “reasonable expectation of privacy” was central to the case, as it was during last year’s U.S. v. Jones, a case involving the government’s installation and use of a GPS tracking device, in which the justices ruled 9-0 that law enforcement officials must obtain a warrant before placing such a device on a suspect’s vehicle.

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