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US Supreme Court says dog-sniff on front porch is a 'search'

The United States Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the use of trained police dogs at the front door of a home to sniff for drugs is a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The case involved an alleged drug crime.

Justice Antonin Scalia says that the Constitution does not prohibit officers from walking up to the front door of a house and knocking without a warrant, because any ordinary (private) citizen may knock on a door. But, a trained police dog sniffing for potential evidence outside a home is extraordinary and does not fall within customary expectations of citizens.

The case did not arise in North Carolina, but the U.S. Supreme Court has binding authority on all other courts on constitutional questions. Police in Miami say that they received a tip about a potential marijuana growing operation inside a home.

A detective brought his drug sniffing dog to the home without a warrant and allowed the dog to smell the base of the front door. After the dog alerted, the police used the information to obtain a search warrant. When police raided the home, they say that they found 25 pounds of marijuana in the residence.

Later, the highest court in Florida ruled that the evidence was unlawfully obtained in violation of the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The U.S Supreme Court agreed, ruling 5-4 Tuesday that to use a trained dog outside a home to search for evidence requires that police obtain a search warrant to lawfully search the area around a home with a contraband sniffing dog. Tuesday's ruling highlights the sanctity of the home in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

In However, the ruling was not unanimous, and the two camps did not divide based upon what many court watchers claim are the normal ideological lines. Joining Justice Scalia in finding that the Constitution requires police to obtain a search warrant to search the outside of the home with a drug-sniffing dog are Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justice Kagan wrote a concurring opinion that reached the issue of privacy rights in the home. She says that a trained police K-9 is not "your neighbor's pet." Use of the dog without a warrant violates a person's privacy rights, Kagan says.

Justice Samuel Alito says the opposite in his dissenting opinion. He says that a reasonable person would know that the smells would make it outside the home. He says , "A reasonable person will not count on the strength of those odors remaining within the range that, while detectible by a dog, cannot be smelled by a human," according to Reuters.

Legal issues can involve complex arguments that can result in disagreement, even in the nation's highest court. The Supreme Court rulings become binding precedent for courts in North Carolina, as well as across the country. But no criminal case reaches the high court, or any appellate level court, without first being raised by a criminal defense lawyer in a trial-level court, where the rubber meets the road.

Source: Reuters, "Supreme Court limits police use of drug-sniffing dogs," Jonathan Stempel, March 26, 2013

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