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Searching for meaning within Search and Seizure Law

Posted in Criminal Law on February 28, 2015

The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.  However, it is well established within the law that the police are allowed to come to our front doors without a search warrant. Why? Because it is implicit in our social contract that visitors, including the police, are free to “approach the home by the front path, knock promptly, wait briefly to be received, and then (absent invitation to linger longer) leave.”[1] In short, although the police are able to search parts of your property when they enter to approach the front door, that search is presumptively reasonable. Although the police need to be careful not to exceed the scope of this limited license to enter our private property, any evidence they gather or observations they make as part of walking to and from our doors can be used against us.

Also, the police are allowed to use drug-sniffing dogs to detect narcotics, concealed in all types of containers, when you are out in public. This is so, the Supreme Court states, as the dog sniff provides very limited information to officers and citizens have no legitimate private interest in contraband. Because no privacy interest is violated, these types of searches are also reasonable.[2]

But are the police allowed to bring a drug-sniffing dog to your door?  Would that type of search still be deemed “reasonable?”  In Florida v. Jardines, decided in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court answered “no.”

The case arose in 2006 when the Police Department received an anonymous tip that Joelis Jardines was growing marijuana his home.  In response, two officers and a trained drug detection dog went to the house, and the dog almost immediately alerted to the scent of marijuana. Armed with this knowledge, the police applied for and received a search warrant.  After discovering drugs were, indeed, being grown there, Mr. Jardines was charged with trafficking marijuana.

At trial, Jardines’s lawyer moved to suppress the evidence seized from the home, arguing that the drug dog’s sniff at the front door was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, so any evidence that resulted from that sniff—including the resulting search warrant—was “fruit of the poisonous tree,” and thus inadmissible. This issue went all the way to the Supreme Court with the defendant arguing that the dog’s sniff was a substantial government intrusion into the home—albeit only onto the porch—and therefore constituted a search, and the government stating that as the police were free to go to a person’s front door, and it is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment for a dog to sniff a person’s belongings in public, no illegal search had occurred.

Drawing a crucial distinction between the luggage at an airport[3], a car on a public street,[4] and the home, Jardines was quick to point out that the Supreme Court has always afforded privacy within the home the highest levels of protection, allowing intrusions against this privacy only with a valid search warrant. Thus, while the police can lawfully arrive at a person’s front door, and can lawfully use a specialized “tool,” a trained dog in this case, to investigate into the contents of containers outside the confines of a residence, the police need a warrant to use that same “tool” to investigate the contents of a home.[5]  As Justice Scalia stated “To find a visitor knocking on the door is routine (even if sometimes unwelcome); to spot that same visitor exploring the front path with a metal detector, or marching his bloodhound into the garden before saying hello and asking permission, would inspire most of us to—well, call the police.”[6]

[1] Florida v. Jardines (2013) 133 S.Ct. 1409, 1415.

[2] See United States v. Place, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, and Illinois v. Caballes.

[3] See City of Indianapolis v. Edmond.

[4] See Illinois v. Caballe.

[5] Support for this decision also came from Kyllo v. United States, a case which held that the police could not use a thermal imaging device to investigate the inside of a home. That case noted that “obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical “intrusion into a constitutionally protected area,” is a search for Forth Amendment purposes.

[6] Florida v. Jardines (2013) 133 S.Ct. 1409, 1416.