The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a homeowner when they led a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a house suspected of being used to grow marijuana.
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.”
The decision is important because it enforces what Justice Scalia calls the traditional property-based understanding of the Fourth Amendment.
Rather than analyzing whether the homeowner had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the property-based approach asks a more fundamental question: Did the underlying actions constitute a search.
“The basic rule is that a search occurs for Fourth Amendment purposes when the government physically intrudes for investigative purposes on one of the areas that the amendment protects: that is, onto persons, houses, papers, or effects,” Scalia said in announcing the decision in open court.
“Our later cases have supplemented this test, but the basic approach keeps easy cases easy – and by those lights, this is an easy case indeed,” he said.
At issue in Florida v. Jardines (11-564) was whether police acted properly when they led a dog trained to detect illicit drugs onto the front porch and up to the front door of Joelis Jardines’ house near Miami.
Investigators suspected Mr. Jardines was using his home to grow large quantities of marijuana. The drug-sniffing dog, “Franky,” signaled his handler that he smelled narcotics.
The dog’s “alert” was combined with other evidence to demonstrate probable cause and obtain a search warrant from a judge. A raid and search revealed that the house was, in fact, being used to grow marijuana.
Jardines’ lawyer challenged the legality of the raid and search. He said police needed a warrant before bringing Franky onto Jardines’ property and up to the front door.
The trial judge agreed and invalidated the search. A state appeals court reversed that decision.
The issue went to the Florida Supreme Court, which agreed with the trial judge that using a dog to sniff odors emerging from the interior of a private home is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and requires that police first obtain a warrant before leading the dog onto the property.
In affirming Florida’s high court, the US Supreme Court said the police officers violated a basic rule of the Fourth Amendment by physically intruding into the area surrounding a private home for investigative purposes without securing a warrant.
“When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals,” Scalia wrote. “At the amendment’s very core stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.”
Scalia added: “This right would be of little practical value if the state’s agents could stand in a home’s porch or side garden and trawl for evidence with impunity.”
In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said Scalia’s property-based rule “is nowhere to be found in the annals of Anglo-American jurisprudence.”
“While the court claims that its reasoning has ancient and durable roots, its trespass rule is really a newly struck counterfeit,” Justice Alito wrote.
Alito said that a reasonable person would understand that odors emerging from a private home may be detected in locations open to the public. He added that the home owner would enjoy no reasonable expectation of privacy in the escaping odors.
“The conduct of the police officer in this case did not constitute a trespass and did not violate respondent’s reasonable expectations of privacy,” Alito said.
Joining the dissent were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.
Joining Scalia in the majority were Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.