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Warrantless dog sniffs: Not a constitutional problem?

Here is a case from outside Colorado that we submit is broadly relevant from a criminal law perspective. We note below its essential details for our readers.

The story starts with a sniffing dog in a Minneapolis apartment hallway, with that canine’s alerting outside a resident’s dwelling ultimately becoming the central focal point in a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling.

That ruling was close, with the court reversing a lower court decision in a narrow 3-2 outcome. The court held that police failure to secure a warrant before employing a dog to sniff for illegal drugs outside an apartment was excusable. The tribunal’s opinion stressed that dog sniffs “do not implicate an expectation of privacy [and] as a result are not searches.” The court sent the case back down to the appellate court for rehearing.

Many readers of our blog might be more than a bit surprised – as well as concerned – by that decision, given its ruling that an apartment resident has no constitutional protection against a warrantless dog sniff outside his or her leased property. Minnesota’s intermediate appellate court certainly viewed the police action as troubling and impermissible; it overturned the defendant’s drug conviction on grounds that use of the dog was an invasion of privacy and an unreasonable search under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

The higher court countered that no privacy rights are involved when a dog conducts a warrantless sniff outside an apartment, because the animal is not focused on detecting unlawful activity per se.

Unsurprisingly, the dissent was sharp and direct. It focused especially on the apparent distinction made by the majority between owned homes and apartments. If a warrantless search and attendant seizure cannot be deemed lawful on, say, a homeowner’s porch or in his or her garage, why is it permissible outside an apartment door?

“Homes are homes,” reasoned the dissent’s opinion.

Police search-and-seizure activities are often questionable and open to constitutional challenge on various grounds. Questions or concerns regarding application of this complex area of law in Colorado can be directed to a proven and aggressive Denver legal defense team.

 

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