Much of a criminal case involves criminal procedure. In other words, a
charge is often supported by evidence; however, if evidence is not supported
by legal procedure, this may be problematic for the prosecution’s case.
One of the most crucial pieces of evidentiary procedure involves the Fourth
Amendment, which protects every person against unreasonable searches and
seizures. Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on this
topic with regard to dog sniffs and alerts. The Court was presented with
the task of answering the following question: to what degree can dogs
be used for a probable cause determination? The answer to this question
sheds light on how such means can assist with a search of a suspect’s
home, pursuant to the constitution.
The Court ultimately decided in a 5-4 decision that the use of a drug-sniffing
dog outside a home of a suspect constitutes a "search,” which
must be backed by probable cause or a warrant. Generally, probable cause
exists when an investigator can determine that there is a fair probability
that a crime has been (or is being) committed.
The Court’s recent decision evolved out of a Florida case. In November
2006, the Miami-Dade Police Department received a tip that a man was growing
marijuana at his home. In accordance with the tip, authorities created
a surveillance of the suspect’s home. Within the investigation,
a canine officer approached the porch of the home with a dog. When the
dog alerted to the presence of a drug, the detective knocked on the door
of the home, seeking consent for a search.
No one responded to the knock. Therefore, the detective got a search warrant
based on the dog alert and his own suspicions. When officers ultimately
conducted a search, they seized several marijuana plants. A DEA agent
arrested the man. The suspect was charged with trafficking more than 25
pounds of marijuana and grand theft for stealing more than $5,000 in electricity
from Florida for growing lights.
The Florida Supreme Court felt that the evidence should be suppressed,
and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Justice Scalia wrote for the majority,
"The investigation [of the suspect’s] home was a 'search’
within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.” In other words, permitting
a police dog to investigate the adjacent area of a home was breaching
the parameters of the Constitution, and this action requires probable
cause. Justice Scalia’s analysis stressed the importance of privacy
around one’s home.
If you have been charged with a serious crime, you may have to question
the legitimacy of any evidence brought against you. A qualified criminal
defense attorney can assess whether evidence against you was obtained
in violation of the Fourth Amendment.