On February 19, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that search alerts made by drug sniffing dogs will be upheld. The ruling made it relatively simple for police to search vehicles after a trained police dog alerts to the smell of narcotics. The decision in the closely watched case reversed a Florida Supreme Court decision that had made it tougher to admit evidence discovered by drug dogs. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the unanimous court, said searches generally would be upheld if “a bona fide organization has certified a dog after testing his reliability in a controlled setting,” or if “the dog has recently and successfully completed a training program that evaluated his proficiency in locating drugs.”
The case concerned Franky, a chocolate Labrador retriever who detected the smell of marijuana outside a Florida house used by Joelis Jardines. Based on Franky’s signal, the police obtained a warrant to search the house, and they found a marijuana-growing operation inside.
Mr. Jardines moved to suppress the evidence, saying that using Franky to sniff around his residence was an unreasonable search barred by the Fourth Amendment. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, and so did a majority of the United States Supreme Court.
The 5-to-4 decision in the case, Florida v. Jardines, No. 11-564, featured an unusual alignment of justices. Justice Antonin Scalia, a member of the court’s conservative wing, wrote the majority decision. Justice Clarence Thomas, a frequent ally, along with three of the court’s more liberal members, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, joined him.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said that police conducted a “search” when they entered the property and took the dog to the house’s front porch.
Since the officers failed to first obtain a warrant from a judge before intruding onto private property, their search was unconstitutional, the court said.
“A police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home and knock” at the front door, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the 10-page majority opinion. “But introducing a trained police dog to explore the area around the home in hopes of discovering incriminating evidence is something else,” he said. “There is no customary invitation to do that.”
“To find a visitor knocking on the door is routine (even if sometimes unwelcome); to spot that same visitor exploring the front path with a metal detector, or marching his bloodhound into the garden before saying hello and asking permission, would inspire most of us to – well, call the police,” Scalia wrote.
This is the second of two police dog cases the court has delivered opinions on this term, both originating in Florida. In a February decision in the other case, Florida v. Harris, the court ruled that an alert by a trained police dog gave police officers probable cause to further search a vehicle.
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