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The issue of when police may lawfully use a drug-sniffing dog in conducting criminal investigations has again made the headlines.  Both recent cases before the U.S. Supreme Court arose from Florida and involved police use of a specially trained canine to search for illegal drugs.  The Court has historically been fairly tolerant of the use of drug detection dogs and has held that the use of a drug dog is not a search under the Fourth Amendment.  Those prior cases, however, did not involve a search of a person’s home.  A person’s home is afforded far greater Constitutional protection than a public place such as an airport, bus station or even a personal vehicle.

In the first case, the defendant was pulled over by police for a routine traffic stop.  The officer had a trained K-9 with him and noticed that the driver of the truck was shaking and breathing rapidly.  The driver refused to give his consent for a search of the truck so the officer walked his K-9 dog around the vehicle’s exterior.  The dog alerted and a search of the truck revealed ingredients for making methamphetamine.  The defendant’s criminal defense attorney moved at trial to suppress evidence of the drug ingredients and claimed that the search was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The motion was denied.  The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, finding that the dog’s alert outside the vehicle was sufficient justification for the search of the truck.

The second case involved the use of a dog at a private residence.  Police in Miami arrived at a house they believed was being used to grow marijuana.  Without getting a warrant, police walked a K-9 up to the front porch of the house.  The dog alerted to the presence of drugs and the officers used that alert to get a search warrant.  A later search of the house led to the discovery of marijuana.  Unlike the previous case, decided a month earlier, the Court held that the actions of police did constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment and that the search was unreasonable because the police did not have probable cause before the dog alerted on the house.  Even though police did not actually enter the home, the Court found that the porch was part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The author is a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney and represents individuals charged with a crime in state, Federal and military courts.