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Does drug dog sniff outside home violate privacy? Supreme Court takes case. (+video)

The Supreme Court will examine a case in which a drug dog signaled the presence of narcotics after being brought to the door of a home. A warrant was obtained, and growing marijuana was found.

By Staff writer / January 6, 2012

Miami-Dade narcotics detector canine Franky, who came out of retirement to give a demonstration, sniffs marijuana in Miami, last month. Franky's super-sensitive nose is at the heart of a question being put to the US Supreme Court: Does a police K-9's sniff outside a house give officers the right to get a search warrant for illegal drugs, or is it the sniff itself a search that violates the home's sanctity?

Alan Diaz/AP

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The US Supreme Court agreed on Friday to take up a case examining whether the use of a drug detection dog on the front porch of a residence suspected of containing a marijuana hothouse constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment.

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At issue is whether police need a warrant before bringing a drug sniffing dog to the front door of a private home, or whether police are free to deploy such dogs to detect suspected illegal drugs and then use the dog’s reaction to obtain a warrant to raid the home.

The case, Florida v. Jardines (11-564), stems from a November 2006 anonymous tip to the Miami-Dade Police Department that the home of Joelis Jardines was being used to grow marijuana.

Roughly a month after receiving the tip, a detective went to the house. After watching the residence for 15 minutes, a police officer with a drug sniffing dog was sent to the front porch. While on the porch, the dog signaled its handler that it smelled the presence of illicit narcotics. A detective then knocked on the front door, where he said he also could smell marijuana.

No one answered the door. During the same period the detective noticed that the home’s air conditioning system remained running. The air conditioning in a normal home cycles on for a few minutes and then automatically turns off once the home is cooler.

Houses being used to grow marijuana are equipped with sun lamps that keep the inside temperature of the home hot, which can cause the air conditioner to run continuously, according to police.

Armed with the combination of the long-running AC unit, the drug dog’s reaction on the front porch, and the detective’s own sense of smell, police obtained a court-authorized warrant to search the home.

During the resulting search, police seized marijuana plants being cultivated in the home. They also arrested Mr. Jardines as he tried to flee.

Jardines was charged with marijuana trafficking and with stealing over $5,000 worth of electricity from the power company by diverting the power around the house’s meter.

At trial, Jardines’ lawyer argued that all evidence from the house must be suppressed because the use of the drug dog on the front porch amounted to an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The judge agreed, and ordered that the seized evidence be withheld. The court said the remaining evidence of the detective’s own sense of smell, the long-running AC unit, and the anonymous tip were not sufficient to justify a search of Jardines’ home.

A state appeals court reversed, ruling that a canine sniff is not a Fourth Amendment search. The court said that a drug dog detects only contraband, and since no one has a legitimate privacy interest in contraband it did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Also the appeals court said the officer and dog were legally present on the front porch and entitled to be there to request access to the home to investigate the earlier tip of suspected drug activity.

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