Dogs Can’t Sniff Your Door Without a Warrant, Court Says

Posted March 26, 2013 in Government Your Personal Rights by

Police dog with handler

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Police cannot bring a dog to a private residence to sniff for drugs through the door, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in a 5-4 decision.

In Florida v. Jardines, the court upheld a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that the area immediately around a person’s home is subject to Fourth Amendment protections against searches, and that using a drug dog to sniff around constitutes a search.

Police officers were effectively trespassing when they walked to the front door of Joelis Jardines’ house with a dog after they were tipped that he was growing marijuana inside, Justice Antonin Scalia asserted in the majority opinion.

“When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals,” Scalia wrote. While it’s perfectly acceptable for friends and strangers alike to walk up a path to a house and knock on the door, “introducing a trained police dog to explore the area around the home in hopes of discovering incriminating evidence is something else,” the ruling says.

A concurrent opinion written by Justice Elana Kagan and signed by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg further asserts that using the dogs without a warrant is an invasion of privacy, comparing it to peering in windows from the porch using binoculars. “Here, police officers came to Joelis Jardines’ door with a super-sensitive instrument, which they deployed to detect things inside that they could not perceive unassisted,” Kagan wrote. “Like the binoculars, a drug-detection dog is a specialized device for discovering objects not in plain view (or plain smell).”

 

Trespass Dissent

The breakdown in the 5-4 ruling came as a surprise, with Justice Stephen Breyer breaking with his other liberal colleagues to join Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy in opposing the decision.

“Dogs have been domesticated for about 12,000 years; they were ubiquitous in both this country and Britain at the time of the adoption of the Fourth Amendment; and their acute sense of smell has been used in law enforcement for centuries,” Alito wrote in the dissent. “The Court has not found a single case holding that a visitor to the front door of a home commits a trespass if the visitor is accompanied by a dog on a leash.” If an average person can approach the door with a dog without being considered a trespasser, Alito reasoned, so then should the police be able to.

The Jardines decision completes the Supreme Court’s canine-related considerations for the term. In another case, the court ruled in February that certified dogs could give police probable cause to search a car unless a defendant could prove otherwise. However, as today’s decision clarifies, their use violates a person’s privacy if they get too close to a residence — unless the cops get a warrant first.

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