The Supreme Court of the United States, or SCOTUS, recently made two significant rulings on cases involving the use of narcotics drugs. Although each addressed unique issues, both cases explored the meaning of the protections guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment; namely, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Searches and vehicles
The first case addressed whether a drug sniffing dog can be used to provide cause for the search of a vehicle. In the case, out of Florida, a man was pulled over for driving with an expired license plate. During the stop, the officer noticed the driver appeared nervous and had an open container of beer in the cup holder. The officer requested permission to search the vehicle and the driver refused.
The officer who made the stop was part of the canine unit and happened to have his narcotics dog, Aldo, with him. He brought the dog out for a “free air” sniff search of the vehicle. The dog alerted and the officer used the alert as cause to search the vehicle over the driver’s refusal. During the search, the officer found substances used to make methamphetamine.
The driver argued the search was illegal because the dog was unreliable. This argument was based on the fact that the dog had previous false positive alerts during field tests. The justices threw out this argument, finding “a sniff is up to snuff” when the dog is properly certified.
Searches and homes
The second case dealt with whether a drug sniffing dog can be used to provide probable cause to search a person’s home. In this case, police gathered evidence in what is known as curtilage. Curtilage is the area immediately outside of a home, like a porch or a back door.
In this case, the drug sniffing dog Franky alerted to the presence of drugs within a home after conducting a free air sniff on the porch of the home. Based on this alert, the officers were able to obtain a warrant to search the home. The search resulted in finding of marijuana and drug charges.
The justices held that, for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, the curtilage was a part of the home. As a result, the search was unreasonable and any evidence resulting from that search was thrown out.
Applying the rulings to Utah
Rulings from SCOTUS directly impact state law and the findings issued by SCOTUS apply in Utah. This means officers are not allowed to conduct free air sniffs with narcotic dogs directly around a person’s home, but can conduct these searches on a vehicle.
It is important to note that even in the case focusing on the search of a vehicle the justices stated the defendant must have an opportunity to question the dog’s reliability. Although false positive tests are not enough to bring a narcotic dog’s training into question, the dog is required to have received proper training. If the dog is not properly trained, the search may be deemed illegal.
Any evidence gathered from an illegal search is not allowed in court. This could lead to dropping of drug crime charges.
If you or a loved one is charged of a drug crime, it is important to discuss your situation with an experienced Utah drug possession lawyer to better protect your legal rights. In some cases, circumstances may lead to a dropping or reduction of the charges.