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Supreme Court ruling limits warrantless drug sniffing

Recent headlines have been dominated by news headlines coming from the U.S. Supreme Court. Although most of the attention has been given to oral arguments regarding same-sex marriage, readers in Maryland may also be interested in an important criminal law case that was just decided by the high court.

The court’s ruling addresses the ability of prosecutors to use warrantless drug sniffs — performed by police dogs — as evidence in court. In a split decision, the justices determined that using a drug-sniffing dog without a court-issued warrant is a violation of Fourth Amendment protections, which limits searches and seizures.

According to reports, the criminal case that led to this Supreme Court decision involved a tip provided to police that a man was growing marijuana in his home. While conducting surveillance, the officers approached the man’s door with a drug-sniffing dog. The animal detected the smell of drugs and gave a signal to officers, which was wrongfully used as probable cause for a search.

This ruling will impact the way law enforcement agencies throughout the country approach investigation. Baltimore police often go to great lengths to pursue those suspected of cultivating or possessing drugs, but they will no longer be able to use a drug-sniffing dog on private property without a warrant. Justice Elena Kagan indicated that police dogs are a “specialized device for discovering objects not in plain view.” As a result, using them without court approval on someone’s property is a violation of the Constitution.

This ruling is once again a reminder as to why it’s critical to scrutinize the investigative methods used by police. In an effort to secure conviction, police may infringe upon a suspect’s rights. Thankfully, there are legal options available to those impacted by such improper treatment.

Source: Associated Press, “Court: Drug dog sniff is unconstitutional search,” Jesse J. Holland, March 26, 2013

  • To learn more about the criminal defense issues discussed in this post, please visit our Maryland drug crime page.
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