Back on March 6, we discussed a pair of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that could have a big impact on police powers in Pittsburgh versus the Fourth Amendment's search warrant requirement to prevent random, unlimited government searches of people and their personal property. The cases were heard by the Court simultaneously because they both involved police in the same state using a police dog to search for drugs without a warrant.
One case involved a traffic stop and the other concerned police standing outside a residence. The Court ruled in favor of the police in the traffic stop case, but on March 26 the justices drew a distinction when it comes to dog sniffs of homes. In a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before using a police dog to search a home, even if the dog is standing outside the door.
An important principle in ruling is the curtilage of the home. The "curtilage" refers to the area immediately surrounding the walls of the home, such as a porch or surrounding sidewalk. The Court has traditionally held that the curtilage is part of the home for Fourth Amendment purposes. In the case before the Court, police received a tip that marijuana were possibly being grown inside a house. An officer took a police dog to the front door of the house and after several minutes the dog indicated that it smelled marijuana inside. Based on that dog sniff, the officers obtained a search warrant that led to an arrest.
Those in the majority made up a coalition of conservative and liberal justices. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the search warrant requirement would "be of little practical value" if police were able to detect what is going on inside a home without having to go inside. Also rejecting the warrantless dog sniff were justices Ginsburg, Kagen, Sotomayor and Thomas.
Source: USA TODAY, "High court rules against drug-sniffing dog search," David Jackson and Richard Wolf, March 26, 2013
· For more information about the laws regulating drug arrests, please visit our Pittsburgh drug charges page.