If you were ever worried about search dogs sniffing around your front porch for suspicious smells, you can breathe a sigh of relief.
On March 26, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that the use of trained police dogs to investigate a home and its immediate surroundings constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, and therefore requires a warrant. The Florida v. Jardines decision upheld a previous ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, which found that probable cause was not established before a dog-sniffing search took place at Joelis Jardines’ private residence.
After receiving an anonymous tip that Jardines’ home was being used to grow marijuana, detectives went to the residence with a chocolate Lab named Franky. The drug dog circled back and forth, sniffed the base of the front door, and then sat down — which is what detective dogs are trained to do after discovering an odor’s strongest point. The police then obtained a warrant to go inside, where they found over 25 pounds of marijuana and arrested Jardines.
Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia concluded that the officers learned about Jardines’ drug operation only by “physically intruding” on his property. “A police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home and knock, precisely because that is ‘no more than any private citizen might do,’” Scalia wrote. But when it comes to bringing a trained police dog to someone’s door in hopes of finding incriminating evidence, Scalia said that constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.
In his dissent, Justice Alito wrote that law enforcement authorities have used dogs and their keen sense of smell for centuries now. He argued that Jardines did not have a reasonable expectation to privacy simply because the scent of his marijuana could be detected by a dog’s nose and not a human’s.
“A reasonable person understands that odors emanating from a house may be detected from locations that are open to the public,” Alito wrote. “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.”
Howard Blumberg, a lawyer for Jardines, deemed the ruling “an important decision for the privacy rights of all citizens.” Privacy advocates feared that if the decision ruled in favor of Franky and his owners, police could use dogs to conduct massive “sniff tests” of densely populated residences such as apartment complexes and public housing. But such sweeps now require probable cause and a warrant.