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Supreme Court to decide on constitutionality of drug-sniffing dogs, DNA samples

Follow up to last Friday's post: The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to review the Maryland DNA sample case (King v. Maryland). We can expect a decision in June of 2013.

We also await the decision of another constitutional law case involving search and seizure. In late October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments regarding whether there are limits to authorities' use of drug-sniffing dogs. Two cases merged before the Court to build the arguments for and against using drug-sniffing dogs without warrants.

In the first case, police officers took a drug-sniffing dog, Franky, to the porch of a home after receiving a tip that there were drugs in the home. The dog sniffed around the door of the porch and alerted police that there were drugs in the home. The police used this information to obtain a search warrant and then searched the home.

The Justices appeared to favor the defendants' argument in Franky's case. While the attorney for the police argued that drug detection "reveals only the presence of contraband, and nobody has a legitimate expectation of privacy in that," Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, "why bother with a search warrant?" and Justice Antonin Scalia said, "It isn't sniffing in the abstract. It's sniffing at the front door" of a home.

While police officers have a right to knock on a person's front door, bringing a dog to a house with the sole purpose of detecting contraband seems to violate traditional concepts of private property and constitutional privacy rights. If the Court has held that police departments must obtain warrants to electronically survey a home, then is it not also reasonable to expect that they must also obtain a warrant to search outside of a home with a drug-sniffing dog?

In the second case, a drug-sniffing dog's qualifications were at issue. Defense attorneys argued that his qualifications were insufficient to justify using him to sniff a truck for drugs since he had not been recertified in 16 months. It appears, however, that the public defender will have more difficulty winning this argument. The Court has held in the past that police can use drug-sniffing dogs to sniff cars without a warrant. The qualification argument seemed, to the justices, to go too far.

The outcome of this case could have implications for defendants and police departments across the country. We will await its resolution, as well as the resolution in the DNA sample case.

Source: NPR, "Sniffing dogs take center stage at high court," Nina Totenberg, Oct. 31, 2012

Learn more about constitutional issues in criminal law by visiting our website on Maryland criminal defense.

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Law Offices of
James N. Papirmeister, Esq.

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As Published in Washingtonian Magazine | Washington's Best Legal Minds | 2013