The Supreme Court of the United States, or SCOTUS, recently ruled on two cases involving the use of drug-sniffing dogs. The holdings issued in these cases will directly impact drug possession and distribution charges in Virginia.
The first case involved the use of a drug-sniffing dog to search a vehicle. The holding, based on a case out of Florida, found an alert from a narcotics dog provides sufficient cause for an officer to conduct a search of a vehicle, even if the driver refuses. The second case involved a narcotics dog searching the curtilage of a home. In this case, the justices found the dog could not conduct a search of the curtilage, or area directly surrounding the home.
These cases question the scope of protections guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment, specifically the protection to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Defendants in both cases argued the use of drug-sniffing dogs to conduct "free air sniff" searches were unreasonable. If the court agreed with their argument, any evidence that was found during these searches would be inadmissible.
Details of the rulings
The first case, Florida v. Harris, began with a stop for an expired license plate. During the stop, the officer requested a search of the vehicle. When the driver refused, the officer brought his narcotics-trained dog, Aldo, to conduct a "free air" search of the vehicle. The dog was led around the vehicle and alerted to the presence of drugs at the driver's side door.
This alert led the officer to conduct a more thorough search. During the search, the officer found various materials used in the production of methamphetamine which led to drug charges against the driver. SCOTUS held the use of a drug-sniffing dog around a vehicle was not unreasonable and allowed the dog's alert to serve as sufficient probable cause to support a more thorough search.
The second case, Florida v. Jardines, began when an officer received a tip that home was growing marijuana. Based on this tip, detectives conducted a "free air" search at the front door with Franky, a canine drug detection dog. While at the front door, the dog was alerted to the presence of drugs. Based on this alert, officers received a warrant to conduct a more thorough search which led to the finding of marijuana plants within the home. Drug charges were issued.
SCOTUS threw out the evidence used in Florida v. Jardines, finding that the use of a drug-sniffing dog on the home's front porch was a violation of the protections guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment. As a result, the police trespassed onto private property to conduct the search and any evidence resulting from this search could not be used in court.
How the ruling could impact drug searches in Virginia
Rulings issued by SCOTUS apply throughout the country and will be followed in Virginia. As a result, police may be able to conduct a search outside of a vehicle using a narcotics dog but not outside of a person's home.
Anyone charged with a drug possession crime resulting from a search should take the charges seriously. A drug possession conviction can lead to fines and potential imprisonment. If you or a loved one is accused of a drug possession or distribution crime, contact an experienced drug possession defense attorney to discuss your situation and better ensure your legal rights are protected.