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Police Need Warrant for Dogs Sniffing Homes, High Court Says

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I thought the way decision split the court was interesting.



March 26 (Bloomberg) -- Drug-sniffing police dogs have their place, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. And it’s not on a suspect’s front porch.

The court today said officers typically need a warrant before taking an animal to the door of a house in the hope of detecting narcotics. The justices ruled on Feb. 19 that police officers can search someone’s car after a trained dog outside the vehicle alerts them to the presence of drugs.

Together, the decisions amount to a vote of respect for the abilities of police dogs -- and wariness about their potential misuse. While the court has previously said officers can walk onto a suspect’s property to knock on the door, the 5-4 majority today said the use of trained dogs is different.

“When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. “This right would be of little practical value if the state’s agents could stand in a home’s porch or side garden and trawl for evidence with impunity.”

The justices were considering a bid by Florida officials to revive the prosecution of a man arrested after police raided a Miami house and found marijuana plants.

The Florida Supreme Court said prosecutors couldn’t use evidence obtained in the house because officers violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches.

Scalia was joined in the majority by Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer dissented.

Franky 'Alerted’

Miami-Dade police began focusing on the house after receiving a tip that Joelis Jardines was growing marijuana there. A month later, two detectives went to the front porch with a drug-sniffing dog, named Franky, who gave an alert at the door. One of the detectives said he also smelled marijuana.

The officers then left to get a search warrant before entering the house and discovering the plants. Jardines was charged with trafficking cannabis and stealing electricity to grow the marijuana.

The Supreme Court majority said police -- like Halloween trick-or-treaters and Girl Scouts selling cookies -- are permitted to knock on someone’s door.

“But introducing a trained police dog to explore the area around the home in hopes of discovering incriminating evidence is something else,” Scalia wrote. “Their behavior objectively reveals a purpose to conduct a search.”

Canine Capabilities

Alito, writing for the dissenters, pointed to a centuries- long tradition of using dogs for police work.

“It is clear that the occupant of a house has no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to odors that can be smelled by human beings,” Alito wrote. “I would not draw a line between odors that can be smelled by humans and those that are detectable only by dogs.”

Kagan, in an opinion concurring with the majority, countered that Franky, the police dog, wasn’t an ordinary canine.

“A drug-detection dog is a specialized device for discovering objects not in plain view (or plain smell),” she wrote. “That device was aimed here at a home -- the most private and inviolate (or so we expect) of all places and things that the Fourth Amendment protects.”

Sniffing Vehicles

Last month’s decision, also in a case from Florida, involved the use of a trained dog after a police officer stopped Clayton Harris for driving his pickup truck with an expired license plate. After the dog, named Aldo, gave an alert by the driver’s-side door handle, the officer concluded that he had the legal right to search the truck.

The search produced ingredients for making methamphetamine, and Harris later admitted that he had purchased the items to make the drug.

The court unanimously said that search was permitted.

“We have held, over and over again, that people’s expectations of privacy are much lower in their cars than in their homes,” Kagan wrote in today’s case.

The high court ruled in 2001 that police couldn’t use technology -- in that case a thermal imaging device -- to discover what otherwise would be unknowable details about a private home.

Florida argued that police should have greater leeway to use drug-sniffing dogs. The Obama administration argued alongside Florida, urging the court to permit broad use of trained dogs.

Privacy Expectations

Jardines’ lawyers argued that the use of dogs outside a person’s door violated the homeowner’s reasonable privacy expectations.

In the opinion for the court, Scalia said the justices didn’t need to decide whether the case raised privacy issues. Bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the door demonstrated that the police were conducting a search in an area protected by the Fourth Amendment, Scalia wrote.

In the concurring opinion, joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor, Kagan wrote that she “could just as happily have decided it by looking to Jardines’ privacy interests.”

The cases are Florida v. Jardines, 11-564, and Florida v. Harris, 11-817.

--Editors: Steven Komarow, Mark McQuillan.

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