Unconstitutional ?

Searching a house based on a drug dog's sniff

A Labrador and his sensitive nose have raised thorny questions about the Fourth Amendment.

An amiable chocolate Lab has unwittingly landed at the center of a Fourth Amendment battle, as the Supreme Court considers a case questioning the constitutionality of drug-sniffing dogs. Here's what you need to know:

What's the case?

In 2006, the chocolate Labrador retriever, named Franky, detected marijuana growing inside a Miami house by walking, and sniffing, outside the closed front door. Authorities, armed with a warrant obtained based on Franky's police work, found 179 marijuana plants, worth some $700,000, in the house, and arrested the resident, Joelis Jardines. But the state's highest court said Franky's nosey work constituted an unconstitutional search. Florida Attorney Journal General Pam Bondi, a Republican, disagrees and wants the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the ruling.

Is the case likely to make it to the Supreme Court?

It very well could. The Supreme Court is expected to decide this month whether it will take the case. The high court has previously ruled on no fewer than four cases questioning whether the use of dogs to sniff out narcotics and explosives violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. In previous cases involving drug dogs detecting illegal substances at airports and on routine traffic stops, the Supreme Court has found the use of dogs to be constitutional.

What makes this case different?

It concerns drugs detected in a private residence, rather a public place. The high court has often emphasized that Americans have a greater right to privacy at home. In 2001, the court ruled against police use of thermal imaging technology outside a house to detect marijuana growing inside. The justices' reasoning was that the thermal devices could also be used to detect legal activity, like bathing, thus violating privacy. But, says NORML at Opposing Views, "the interesting thing here is that unlike the thermal imaging ruling, a dog is not finding out about other legal activity."

How could the outcome affect police?

Law enforcement agencies are monitoring the case to see how it might effect the use of the dogs, on which they depend. Lt. Tom Lyter, a police K-9 trainer in Pensacola, Fla., says if the sniffing is deemed unconstitutional in this instance, investigators will have to do more legwork to get warrants rather than relying on dogs. But his department typically doesn't have dogs detect drugs outside closed front doors, anyway. "It's not going to shut down our unit or anything, it's something that we'll deal with," he says. "I've got 22 years in law enforcement, and I can't count the number of changes we've had to the way we do police work."

And what about Franky the chocolate Lab?

He won't be affected by the ruling. The 8-year-old Franky recently retired, after seven years serving the Miami-Dade Police Department. Over his career, he helped to seize more than 80 pounds of cocaine, 2.5 tons of marijuana, and $4.9m in drug-contaminated cash. Franky was often used in public spaces, like airports and sports stadiums. "He's a friendly, happy dog," says Detective Douglas Bartelt, a former handler who now cares for the retired K-9. "People don't have fear because of his appearance."

(Published by The Week - January 5, 2012)

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