US Supreme Court will rule on use of drug-sniffing dogs and the 4th Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases this term that addressed a fundamental question based on the Fourth Amendment — in what circumstances do we have a reasonable expectation of privacy? The cases before the high court both involved the use of drug-sniffing dogs. In one case, the dog’s nose was put to the test outside of a private residence and in the other, outside of a vehicle during a traffic stop. The decisions made by the justices will clarify in which situations it is lawful to use a drug detection dog to alert to the presence of certain substances.

The cases will fall on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” It also provides that probable cause is required to obtain a warrant.

Previous decisions regarding drug detection techniques

The Supreme Court has addressed the use of certain drug detection devices in previous drug crimes cases, including the use of drug-sniffing dogs.

In 2001, the court considered a case in which a “thermal imaging device” had been used to detect whether marijuana was being grown in a residence in Oregon. The law enforcement officials in that case did not obtain a warrant before using the device. In that case, the high court held that the search was unreasonable and necessitated a warrant, because the officers had used “a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of a private home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion.”

In 2005, the Supreme Court heard a case involving the use of a drug-sniffing dog during a traffic stop. In that situation, the court found the search was lawful, as the dog was only trained to detect unlawful substances, whereas the thermal imaging device could have detected information such as when the homeowner was taking a bath. The court held, “The legitimate expectation that information about perfectly lawful activity will remain private is categorically distinguishable from respondent’s hopes or expectations concerning the non-detection of contraband in the trunk of his car.”

The current cases before the U.S. Supreme Court

The first case before the U.S. Supreme Court during this term, Florida v. Jardines, deals with the use of a drug-sniffing dog outside of a private residence. The law enforcement officers did not obtain a warrant, but brought the canine onto the front porch of the home. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs while on the front porch. The officers used that information to obtain a warrant, and found marijuana being grown inside the residence. The homeowner was then charged with drug trafficking and grant theft.

The second case, Florida v. Harris, involved the use of a drug-sniffing dog during a routine traffic stop. In this case, Harris was stopped by a law enforcement officer because he was driving with expired tags on his license plate. The dog alerted to drugs on the driver’s side of the vehicle. Upon conducting a search, the officer found supplies used to make methamphetamine.

Shortly thereafter, the same police officer pulled over the same driver in the same vehicle. Once again, the dog alerted to the presence of drugs; however, no drugs or drug paraphernalia was discovered upon searching the vehicle. In this case, therefore, the reliability of the drug-sniffing dog was called into question.

When someone is charged with a drug crime based on evidence found with the use of a drug-sniffing dog, it is wise to consult with a skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney to ensure a strong defense is established.