Supreme Court: Dog Sniffs At Persons’ Homes Are Searches Requiring Probable Cause Under the Fourth Amendment

Washington, DC (March 26, 2013) – In its decision in Florida v. Jardines (11-564), the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the Florida Supreme Court, which affirmed the suppression of marijuana evidence unearthed by law enforcement arising out of their use of a canine sniff at Mr. Jardines’s front door without probable cause. This is the second dog sniff opinion of the term. This time, though, the Court sided with personal rights over law enforcement’s use of enhanced searching technologies.

In summary,

Police took a drug-sniffing dog to Jardines’ front porch, where the dog gave a positive alert for narcotics. Based on the alert, the officers obtained a warrant for a search, which revealed marijuana plants; Jardines was charged with trafficking in cannabis. The Supreme Court of Florida approved the trial court’s decision to suppress the evidence, holding that the officers had engaged in a Fourth Amendment search unsupported by probable cause.

 As in United States v. Jones, the GPS case from last term, the Court’s majority today reaffirmed a centuries-old tradition to “keep easy cases easy”—the government must obtain a warrant before it may intrude upon private property in order to gather evidence of a crime.  By finding the conduct of law enforcement in this case to have violated a person’s constitutional right to protection from unwarranted search and seizure, the Supreme Court made clear today that the Fourth Amendment is not, in fact, dead.

The use of a trained police narcotics dog is no different than the use of GPS or thermal heat imaging technology. Law enforcement may not use enhanced search technologies to intrude upon private spaces without a warrant. Today’s ruling reinforces the old adage that “a man’s home is his castle” and the Government, even in the form of a “drug sniffing” dog, cannot intrude on that fundamental right with the purpose of gathering incriminating evidence without a warrant.

Some highlights from the opinion:

 (a) When “the Government obtains information by physically intruding” on persons, houses, papers, or effects, “a ‘search’ within the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment” has “undoubtedly occurred.” United States v. Jones, 565 U. S. ___, ___, n. 3.

(b) At the Fourth Amendment’s “very core” stands “the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” Silverman v. United States, 365 U. S. 505, 511. The area “immediately surrounding and associated with the home”—the curtilage—is “part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.” Oliver v. United States, 466 U. S. 170, 180. The officers entered the curtilage here: The front porch is the classic exemplar of an area “to which the activity of home life extends.” Id., at 182, n. 12.

(c) The officers’ entry was not explicitly or implicitly invited. Officers need not “shield their eyes” when passing by a home “on public thoroughfares,” California v. Ciraolo, 476 U. S. 207, 213, but “no man can set his foot upon his neighbor’s close without his leave,” Entick v. Carrington, 2 Wils. K. B. 275, 291, 95 Eng. Rep. 807, 817. A police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home in hopes of speaking to its occupants, because that is “no more than any private citizen might do.” Kentucky v. King, 563 U. S. ___, ___. But the scope of a license is limited not only to a particular area but also to a specific purpose, and there is no customary invitation to enter the curtilage simply to conduct a search. Pp. 5–8.

(d) It is unnecessary to decide whether the officers violated Jardines’ expectation of privacy under Katz v. United States, 389 U. S. 347.

And the best part about it: Scalia delivered it!

A link to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Florida v. Jardines is available here.

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