Along with the Supreme Court hearing marriage equality cases this week, it also took time to issue a ruling on Tuesday on the legality of using warrantless searches using drug-sniffing dogs. On that score, the majority ruled that the Fourth Amendment right to keep the government out of your home extends to canine noses, so a warrant is needed.
“The police cannot, without a warrant based on probable cause, hang around on the lawn or in the side garden, trawling for evidence and perhaps peering into the windows of the home,” Justice Antonin Scalia said for the majority. “And the officers here had all four of their feet and all four of their companion’s planted firmly on that curtilage—the front porch is the classic example of an area intimately associated with the life of the home.”
Scalia was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Clarence Thomas—certainly an unlikely mix of justices.
In his dissent, Justice Alito said that the court’s ruling stretches expectations of privacy too far. “A reasonable person understands that odors emanating from a house may be detected from locations that are open to the public, and a reasonable person will not count on the strength of those odors remaining within the range that, while detectable by a dog, cannot be smelled by a human.”
As one editorial noted, “They used the sniff test to establish probable cause to get a search warrant. But the sniffing itself was an illegal search, the court said. Imagine if this man were just sitting on his couch, smoking a joint. Would we be okay with police entering his house, based only on a tip from a lovable dog?”
This case involved a Miami-Dade narcotics detection canine, Franky, and his super-sensitive nose. Question being presented to the Supreme Count was, does a police K-9’s sniff outside a house give officers the right to get a search warrant for illegal drugs, or is the sniff itself an unconstitutional search? To Franky’s credit, his nose lead to the detection of 179 pot plants growing inside a Miami house.
Although the high court has approved drug-sniffing dogs in other major cases, including routine traffic stops, airport luggage or a drug-laden package in transit, the difference in this case is that Franky’s services were used at a private home. In the future, Franky and his co-workers will simply need to get a warrant first.