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4th Amendment dog-sniff case underscores law’s complexity

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that constitutional protections kick in for an individual when a police dog sniffs under his or her porch door.

What that specifically means is that criminal evidence discovered from that sniff is pursuant to a search, which must be reasonable. The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment mandates that police must have probable cause to be at the scene and conduct the search. In most instances, police action must be preceded by the issuance of a warrant.

What if a trained canine focusses its powerful nose at the crack of an apartment door, though, as opposed to smelling around the immediate environs of a private home? Should that allow for some constitutional differentiation in treatment? Should dog sniffs be subject to stated constitutional limitations where a home is involved, but be under no restrictions at all in an apartment complex?

We suspect that many of our readers across California would find illogic in any such distinction. They are likely inclined to agree with the recently stated view of a justice from one state’s Supreme Court that, “Homes are homes.”

It bears noting that said judge’s remark was expressed in a minority dissent in a recent case. The court majority in that matter held that a warrantless dog sniff at an apartment door does not give rise to a constitutional search and thus require a warrant preceding it. As such, noted the Minnesota Supreme Court, illegal drug evidence seized following a warrantless sniff is admissible in court.

That opinion is likely to engender considerable media ink and debate nationally in its wake, for at least two reasons.

First, the majority view stressed that dogs do not distinguish between lawful and unlawful activity when they sniff and occasionally assume an alert stance. Consequently, their actions “do not implicate an expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable.” Their behavior cannot be termed as a lawful search giving rise to constitutional safeguards.

And, second, the apparent distinction the court drew between private abodes and apartments is likely to be prominently spotlighted.

“Constitutional rights should not depend on the form of [a] dwelling,” stated the court’s dissent.

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