The State of Florida is appealing a case to the US Supreme Court asking this country’s highest court to decide whether it’s a search for purposes of the 4th Amendment to have a police dog sniff at a person’s front door. In a Miami case, police received a tip about a marijuana grow house. They conducted surveillance on the house but observed nothing. That’s when they brought a trained police dog to the front door and the dog alerted to the smell of marijuana. The police then used this to obtain a search warrant to enter the home and to look for narcotics. Not surprisingly, they uncovered a large quantity of marijuana inside the house.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Generally, in order to search a person, the police must have probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that they will find evidence of the crime on the person. Probable cause, in laymen’s terms, means that they are more likely than not to find evidence there. When it comes to a person’s house, the rules are even stricter. A person’s private residence is afforded the highest level of protection against government intrusion. The sanctity of a person’s home is supreme. It’s where he expects to have privacy, where he sleeps, where he raises a family, and does the most personal of things. As a result, it’s a place that the government doesn’t usually get to go traipsing through…at least without a search warrant. In order to obtain a search warrant, the police again have to have probable cause. But, for homes, it goes one step further—the police have to apply to a judge and the judge determines if there is in fact probable cause to warrant the search.
If the police already conducted a search of a person’s home without a search warrant, they can’t then use the information they illegally obtained in order to get a warrant. That’s the claim in the case of the marijuana grow house. The Defendant argues that when the dog sniffed at the front door, that was a search. This information was later used to obtain a search warrant. If the US Supreme Court agrees, that would mean that any evidence obtained inside the house must be suppressed.
While it may seem far-fetched to say that a dog sniffing at the outside of a door is a “search,” when you consider some of the other rulings of the Supreme Court, it’s questionable. For instance, in Kyllo v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that using a heat seeking device to measure the heat output of a home is a search even though the police do not enter into the home at all to use the device. Heat seeking devices are valuable to law enforcement because they can detect high voltage lighting that is often used in marijuana grow houses. But, the Court reasoned that using these high-tech devices directed at a person’s home is a search and it violates the 4th Amendment. Is the use of a dog really that different? The State of Florida says it is. The State argues that a dog is as low-tech a tool as they come and the Kyllo decision rested largely on the fact that the heat seeking devices are high-tech gadgets that aren’t available to the general public. Surely, the same cannot be said of a labrador.
But should the high court rule that the use of a drug sniffing dog is not a search, does that mean that the police can walk up to anyone’s front door to see if the dog smells a person smoking marijuana inside and then get a warrant to search his home? It certainly could. And this is precisely the slippery slope of government intrusion into the home that the Court guards against in recent opinions. For the time being, we all must anxiously await the ruling of the Court to see how Florida law will be shaped in the years to come.