The issue of whether police will be allowed to use K-9's at people's homes in the course of investigating Washington D.C. drug charges will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington D.C. drug defense attorneys will be watching the developments of this case with interest, as it could have major implications on future cases across the country.
The highest court in the land decided to take on the issue, stemming from Jardines v. Florida, a drug case that has had attorneys in Florida wrangling for the last several years.
At the core of this case is whether a drug-sniffing dog amounts to a formal search of property. If this is the case, as several lower courts have determined, then it is subject to all of the other laws governing proper search and seizure of evidence.
Jardines was a Miami resident, and police there received a tip that he was cultivating cannabis. Detectives placed the home under 24-7 surveillance, hoping to turn up some solid evidence. But they found nothing that would indicate there was any criminal activity happening at the home.
Then one day, a detective decided to approach the door. This is not illegal. However, at his side was a K-9 drug sniffing dog. The dog, upon approaching the residence, gave his law enforcement handler a signal indicating he smelled drugs at the residence. The detective knocked, but no one answered the door. The detective noted that he, too, smelled marijuana.
Using this scant bit of evidence - particularly the dog's alert - the detective sought a warrant from a local magistrate, which was approved. With that warrant, detectives searched the home, and found what they were looking for - a lot of pot.
It might have seemed an open-and-shut case, were it not for Jardines' defense attorney bringing up a 2004 case in a federal appeals court. There, the judges ruled that not only does a drug dog's sniff count as a formal search, but that when the place being searched is a person's private residence, using a drug dog amounts amounts to an unlawful search. At trial, the judge agreed with the defense attorney's reasoning. All of the evidence uncovered at the house was tossed.
The case might have ended there, were it not for a ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeals. There, judges determined that the simple act of a dog sniffing around at someone's door step doesn't equal a search. Therefore, according to the judges, no warrant was required. In its reasoning, the appeals court relied on another determination made by the U.S. Supreme Court, stemming from an Illinois case. In that ruling, the justices found that nobody has any right to privacy when it comes to contraband. So, according to them, a sniffing dog does not amount to a search. The justices took it a step further in saying that dogs aren't like surveillance video or wiretapping in that the dog's only job is to hunt for illegal drugs. The other devices, it was decided, were more invasive in that they captured inane, as well as criminal, activity, and therefore, they required a warrant. The dog, however, did not.
The case may have ended there, were it not for the Florida Supreme Court weighing in on the decision. Judges there overturned the appeals' court ruling, saying that not only are using drug dogs to sniff test a private residence a government intrusion, but they are an "unreasonable" and "substantial" intrusion, and further a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
All of this lays the groundwork for what promises to be an interesting debate with far-reaching implications in D.C. drug crime cases.
If you are facing criminal drug charges in D.C., contact the Law Office of Daniel A. Gross, PLLC for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights or fill out our online contact form. Visa, Mastercard and Discover cards accepted. Call 202-596-5716.