Supreme Court to Decide Case of Drug-Sniffing Police Dog

Posted January 11, 2012 in Criminal Law by Heather McGowan

The US Supreme Court will review a Florida case where a drug-sniffing dog outside a person’s house detected the presence of illegal drugs inside. The lower courts threw out the evidence. The case started with a call to a local “crime stoppers” hotline that Joelis Jardines’s house was being used as a greenhouse for marijuana.

Following Franky’s Nose

The Miami-Dade Police Department received the hotline call on November 3, 2006. A month later, the police along with other state and federal law enforcement officers made their move.

Law enforcement put the house under surveillance and brought in a drug detection dog, “Franky,” to smell for drugs at the front door of the Jardines home. Franky was a spirited dog, and his detective-handler trailed behind him as they made their way to the front door, with Franky on a six-foot leash. Franky “bracketed and tracked,” and gave a positive alert for the smell of narcotics, which was to sit down.

The handler let Miami Detective Pedraja know of the alert, and Pedraja went to the door, and smelled marijuana. Nobody appeared to be home, and Pedraja noted the air conditioning never cycled off, a possible sign of heat inside the home from a pot growing operation. Pedraja left the scene to get a search warrant.

Pedraja returned with the warrant, and the police and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents went in the front door — while Jardines went the other way, slipping out of the home’s rear sliding glass door. A DEA agent caught Jardines, and pot was growing inside the home. Jardines was charged with marijuana trafficking and theft of electricity, used in the growing operation.

Jardines Claims Illegal Search and Florida Supreme Court Agrees

Jardines filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his home, and the trial court threw out the evidence. The appeals went up to the Florida Supreme Court affirmed. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a dog “sniff test” without a warrant at the front door of Jardines’s private home violated Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights.

The Florida Supreme Court said there is a “bright line” at your front door when it comes to surveillance and searches requiring a warrant. Your home is your castle, and the Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches. This protection applies when someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the target of the search, which for Jardines was his home.

Does this expectation apply to your front door or porch? Yes, said the court, when it’s a drug detection dog at the door and not a salesman, visitor, or even a police officer who tries to “knock and talk.” In this case, the “sniff test” was no simple matter, but a coordinated, intensive and dramatic process.

The Fourth Amendment gives your home special status, a dog “sniff test” doesn’t just detect whether or not illegal drugs are present, but is an intrusive procedure that can expose someone to public disgrace, humiliation and embarrassment, reasoned the Florida Supreme Court. The court distinguished its ruling from other federal cases allowing dog sniff and field detection tests for drugs, which involved minimal intrusion, in the settings of inspecting luggage at an airport, vehicles during checkpoint or traffic stops, or a package containing drugs, damaged during transit with a private shipping service.

The search warrant wasn’t supported by probable cause. Use of the “sniff test” was out, and Pedraja smelled marijuana only after Franky’s alert was complete. Additionally, the crime stoppers tip, and observations that the home’s window blinds were closed with the air conditioning running constantly, didn’t support issuance of the search warrant.

US Supreme Court Has the Last Word

The US Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and will answer the question of whether the dog detection “sniff test” at the front door of Jardines’s private home violates the Fourth Amendment. Howard K Blumberg, a public defender, represents Jardines.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement, “The use by law enforcement of drug-sniffing dogs in detecting drugs and dangerous substances is essential in protecting all of us from the drugs and other chemical substances that exist in our communities.” Bondi also stated that a favorable decision in the case would resolve the issue and allow law enforcement to continue to use the invaluable tool of drug detection dogs.

Watch for the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, and make a note next time you see a commercial for your town’s crime stopper hotline or unusual police activity down the street in your neighborhood, maybe even a Franky “bracketing and tracking.” It could prompt you to call a criminal law attorney and just might be the beginning of a future US Supreme Court case that can make a difference at your front door.

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