Florida has asked the United States Supreme Court to decide whether police officers can legally use a trained narcotics dog to sniff a front door of a residence without probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed inside the residence. Miami narcotics detectives received an anonymous tip that a particular residence was being used as a marijuana "grow house". Despite a lengthy period of surveillance on the house, the detectives were unable to gather any evidence sufficient enough to allow them to seek obtaining a search warrant. When the surveillance failed, the detectives approached the residence with a trained narcotics dog that alerted upon sniffing the front door. After the dog alerted, another detective approached the front door and then magically smelled the strong odor of marijuana emanating from the residence. The detectives drafted an affidavit in support of a search warrant which was then signed off on by a judge. The detectives returned to residence, busted down the door with the warrant in hand and discovered a large hydroponic marijuana grow house.
A Miami criminal lawyer filed a motion to suppress which was heard before a Miami-Dade County circuit court judge. Following the law issued by a federal appellate court, the trial court judge found that the dog's sniff was a search under the constitution and was improper without probable cause and a warrant. The federal court ruling in 2004 held that when searching a private home, "a firm line remains at the entrance, blocking the noses of dogs from the intimate details of an individual's life." The 3rd District Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court, reversing the ruling by holding that a dog sniff does not equal a search and therefore a warrant is not required to put a dog up on the porch to sniff around the door of the residence. The Court of Appeal relied on another federal case which found that a dog sniff of contraband is not a search as no privacy interest exists in illegal contraband.
The Florida Supreme Court reversed the decision of the 3rd DCA and noted that a person's home is afforded a special status and that a dog sniff at the front door was an unreasonable intrusion into the sanctity of a home. The Court went further to say that a dog sniff is "a substantial intrusion" and constitutes a search within the 4th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Despite the ruling, the opinions of the justices were not unanimous with two of the judges dissenting. The state has taken the appeal up to the Supreme Court on the basis that the ruling in Florida is in direct contravention of the case it relied up at the 3rd District Court of Appeal. The state also noted in the appeal that the Florida Supreme Court's decision will hamper drug enforcement across the state if probable cause is needed before deploying a drug dog.
At this point, it is not clear whether the Supreme Court will hear the matter. Miami criminal defense lawyers would clearly be elated if the Court refuses to hear the issue in that drug sniffing dogs could only be used if probable cause for the sniff exists. In the event the Supreme Court believes that Florida is handing down rulings in direct contravention of the earlier laws, they will probably step in and intercede, finding that Florida has erred and overstepped its bounds. In either event, the law as it stands enures to the benefit of home owners. Anyone arrested for illegal contraband in the home, especially narcotics, that were discovered as the result of a sniff, should files a motion to suppress in their case.
Front Door Sniff By A drug Dog Require Probable Cause, Sunshine Slate.com, November 21, 2011.