Supreme Court Snuffs Warrantless Sniffs at the Stoop


By: Brian Dempsey
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court recently decided that a narcotics detection canine’s sniff at the front door of a suspected marijuana grow house is a search requiring probable cause and a warrant. (Florida v. Jardines, Docket No. 11-564 (March 26, 2013)). For the majority, this case turned on the fact that the sniff occurred on private property. After all, just a few weeks prior, the Court had unanimously held that an exterior sniff of a vehicle on a public roadway is not a search which is subject to such restrictions under the Fourth Amendment.  (Florida v. Harris, Docket No. 11-817 (Feb. 19, 2013)).
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, applied traditional principles of trespass law to conclude that the sniff amounted to a search under the Fourth Amendment. Scalia began by noting that the front porch where the officers deployed the canine was within the home’s “curtilage,” which encompasses the immediate surroundings of the home. As such, the front porch was to be treated as part of the home for purposes of the Fourth Amendment analysis. With that, Scalia reasoned, this was an “easy” case. When the government uses a physical intrusion to explore the details of the home (including its curtilage), a “search” has taken place.