Miami-Dade police detectives conducted an unlawful search when they used a drug-sniffing dog at the front door of a suspected marijuana grow house without getting a search warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Civil libertarians and defense lawyers are hailing the decision in Florida v. Jardines, which curbs the use of police dogs in front of homes.
“The privacy rights of a homeowner are special,” said Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Howard K. Blumberg, who represented Joelis Jardines, the Miami man at the center of the case. “It sends a message to police that when you’re talking about doing a search on a home, you generally need a warrant before you invade privacy rights.”
Florida law enforcement, however, is not thrilled with the decision. In recent years, hydroponic marijuana labs have proliferated in South Florida, as has violence associated with the trade.
The decision does not mean drug-sniffing dogs cannot be used — but handlers first must build up enough evidence to get a search warrant signed by a judge.
“Although we are disappointed in today’s Supreme Court decision, utilizing a drug-sniffing dog was only one tool in the law enforcements arsenal to combat hydroponic labs,” Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson said.
Police will continue to aggressively pursue the labs, Patterson said.
Tuesday’s decision comes less than two months after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Florida v. Harris, ruled in favor of police in another dog case, finding that a K-9 drug dog used in a traffic stop had sufficient training.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Tuesday upheld a Florida Supreme Court opinion which ruled that Miami-Dade officers violated Jardines’ right to privacy in December 2006 when they used a chocolate labrador named Franky to sniff out drugs at his South Miami-Dade home.
Miami-Dade Detective William Pedraja zeroed in on Jardines’ house after catching a tip from the CrimeStoppers hotline. A month later, detectives and federal agents brought Franky to Jardines’ front door, and the drug detection dog alerted his handler to the smell of marijuana emanating from the house.
Detectives secured a search warrant, found the illegal plants and Jardines — who tried to escape out the back of the home — was arrested for marijuana trafficking. A Miami-Dade judge threw out the evidence of the marijuana, ruling that the search was unlawful.
Miami-Dade’s Third District Court of Appeal tossed that decision, only to be reversed by the Florida Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, U.S. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the majority opinion, said the use of police dogs outside a person’s home indeed constitutes “a search” under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“This right would be of little practical value if the state’s agents could stand in a home’s porch or side garden and trawl for evidence with impunity,” Scalia wrote.
The Florida Attorney General’s office had insisted that investigators and their dog have the same right to approach the home’s front door as do mail carriers, salesmen or even Girl Scouts hawking cookies.
“ … Introducing a trained police dog to explore the area around the home in hopes of discovering incriminating evidence is something else,” Scalia wrote. “There is no customary invitation to do that.”