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.
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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.”
Justice Samuel Alito, in the dissent, insisted that the majority opinion left the “mistaken impression” that Franky and handler, Miami-Dade detective Douglas Bartelt, spent extended time on the property before finally obtaining the search warrant.
“This entire process — walking down the driveway and front path to the front door, waiting for Franky to find the strongest source of the odor, and walking back to the car — took approximately a minute or two,” wrote Alito, who pointed out that Detective Pedraja himself smelled the marijuana emanating from inside the house.
Joining Alito in the dissent were John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer. Scalia was joined by justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Florida’s defense attorneys reacted to Tuesday’s decision with praise.
“Although many have criticized Scalia, they are barking up the wrong tree,” said Miami federal defense lawyer David O. Markus. “Antonin Scalia is the defendant’s best friend.”
Said Jude Faccidomo, the president of Miami’s branch of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers: “In an era when the Fourth Amendment seems to be eroding far too rapidly, we’re pleased the court issued a ruling that has maintained some barrier on police action.”
Illicit marijuana grow houses are a big business in Miami-Dade, with county police in 2010 seizing more than 30,000 pounds of marijuana from the operations.
In February, Miami-Dade narcotics detectives got into a harrowing shootout with two men running a hydroponics home in Southwest Miami-Dade. One died in an ensuing fire, while another killed himself. A third was charged with running the grow house.
Federal authorities also are prosecuting the Santiesteban family, who they say operated a large-scale grow house ring stretching from South Florida to New York. The family is suspected of being involved in at least two murders.
Earlier this month, one of the major players pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against others.
Police say trained dogs are not the only crime fighting tool used to investigate grow houses. Detectives usually field tips from informants, do extensive surveillance, conduct criminal background checks and check how much electricity a house might use in operating the energy-consuming lights used to keep marijuana plants growing.
Ted Daus, a Broward prosecutor who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Police K9 Magazine, predicts the effect of the opinion will be mostly “administrative.”
“It’s going to require one extra search warrant,” he said.