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High court debates use of sniffer dogs: same as trick-or-treaters?

October 31, 2012|By David G. Savage
  • Miami-Dade County narcotics detector canine Franky sniffs for marijuana in Miami.
Miami-Dade County narcotics detector canine Franky sniffs for marijuana… (Alan Diaz / Associated Press )

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court justices spent part of their Halloween debating whether visitors have a right to stand on the front porch of a house and knock on the door, or instead whether an unwanted visit may violate the rights of the homeowner.

The question arose in a case about whether the police may use a dog to sniff for illegal drugs at the front door of a home. 

A lawyer defending a Florida police officer said that because trick-or-treaters can visit a front porch, so can a police officer with his trained drug dog.

“It’s well established, we think, going back to the common law, that there is an implied consent for people, visitors, salesmen, Girl Scouts, trick-or-treaters, to come to your house and knock on the door,” Washington attorney Gregory Garre said.

But he ran into sharp opposition from most of the justices, including Justice Antonin Scalia.

It is “not implied consent for the policeman to come up with the dog,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

Scalia agreed. “When the officer’s going there to conduct a search, it’s not permitted,” he said.

Garre was defending a Miami officer who took his drug dog Franky to the front of a house searching for evidence of marijuana. When Franky alerted near the front door, the officer obtained a search warrant and found marijuana growing inside.

The Supreme Court took up the case to decide whether using a police dog at the front door of a home violates the 4th Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches.”

“In my neighborhood, neighbors can bring their dog up on the leash when they knock on your front door, and I think that’s true in most neighborhoods in America,” Garre said. “Homeowners that don’t like dogs and want them off their property [can] put a fence around it to say, 'No dogs allowed.'

"So now we tell all the drug dealers: Put up a sign that says 'No Dogs'?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked.

Although Garre said he saw no objection to bringing a dog to the front of a house, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said a homeowner “would resent someone coming up with a large animal and sitting in front step … and sniffing for five to 15 minutes.”

david.savage@latimes.com

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