Supreme Court clarifies warrant requirement for drug-sniffing dogs

The United States Supreme Court decided a case recently that affects the rights of individuals to be free from unreasonable police searches in their homes. In Florida v. Jardines, decided March 26, 2013, the Court ruled that the use of drug-sniffing dogs in the area immediately outside a home constitutes a police search — and therefore that the warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution apply.

The Jardines case stems from a 2006 incident in which police received a tip that a Joelis Jardines was growing marijuana inside his home. Without obtaining a search warrant, police brought a trained drug-sniffing dog to the front porch of Jardines’ home. After sniffing around the front door, the dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs inside the home. Based on that information, officers then obtained a warrant to search the home and discovered marijuana inside. Jardines was arrested and charged with drug trafficking.

Warrant requirement

The defendant’s attorney argued at trial that police violated Jardines’ constitutional rights by using a drug-sniffing dog outside his front door without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by police, particularly while inside their homes.

To prevent police from wielding unlimited power, the Fourth Amendment requires that law enforcement officers typically must obtain a warrant before searching a person’s home. In order to obtain a warrant, police officers must go before a judge and establish probable cause. This means that an officer requesting a warrant must show that it is more likely than not that the search would reveal evidence of a crime in a particular location.

Illegal police trespass

In the Jardines case, the officers did not establish probable cause or obtain a warrant until after they had brought a drug-sniffing dog to the defendant’s home. The Court found that using the police dog in this manner violated Jardines’ Fourth Amendment rights, even though officers did not enter the defendant’s home. Because the evidence was obtained by trespassing on Jardines’ property, the Court reasoned, it constituted an illegal intrusion on his Fourth Amendment rights.

The Court acknowledged that everyday visitors have implicit permission to approach a person’s home and knock on its front door without committing trespass. However, the Court concluded that this privilege did not extend to the officers’ use of a trained police dog to conduct a warrantless search for evidence in the area around the home. Because police discovered the marijuana illegally, the Court ruled that the evidence could not be used to convict Jardines.

Limits on police power

Police officers occupy a position of power in society, but that power is not unlimited. The Constitution and other laws exist to prevent law enforcement agencies and prosecutors from going beyond the limits of their authority while investing and prosecuting criminal suspects. When police or investigators fail to comply with the law, the evidence they obtain can often be excluded from court.

People facing criminal charges should seek help from an experienced criminal defense lawyer who will identify any holes in the prosecution’s case and advocate vigorously on the defendant’s behalf to ensure that his or rights are protected.