We wrote a previous entry about a case being decided by the United States Supreme Court regarding whether the police can have a drug dog walk onto someone’s property and sniff for the odor of illegal drugs without a search warrant. In many cases, a police officer will call for a drug dog, or K-9, during a traffic stop when the police officer believes the person has illegal drugs in his/her vehicle. If the drug dog alerts to the odor of marijuana, cocaine or other illegal drugs as it walks around the vehicle, then the police will search the vehicle looking for the drugs. The traffic stop situation is different from the issue decided in the Supreme Court case because, among other reasons, in the case of a traffic stop, the police presumably had a legal basis to stop the vehicle- typically a violation of a traffic law. The police officer cannot keep a driver who violated a traffic law at the scene for too long, but the police officer would be able to hold the driver at the scene while he/she is writing the traffic ticket and for a reasonable period of time thereafter.
However, in the case of a person’s house, if the police officer does not have sufficient information to obtain a search warrant, he/she would typically not have a legal basis to come onto a person’s property to search it. The state would argue that a drug dog sniffing around the outside of a person’s home is not really a search under the Constitution, but that was one of the issues the Supreme Court had to consider.
With its decision, the Supreme Court decided that a drug dog sniffing around a person’s home is a search, as contemplated by the United States Constitution, so people have a right to privacy in the area around their homes when it comes to drug dogs and police. As a result, the police cannot just go onto a person’s property with a drug dog and have it smell around for the odor of illegal drugs. In its decision, the Supreme Court correctly noted that there is a higher privacy interest when it comes to a person’s home, as opposed to a vehicle during a traffic stop.
A police officer can walk onto any person’s property (assuming it is not gated or otherwise restricted), knock on the door, ask questions and seek consent to search the home. Of course, the homeowner is permitted to refuse to answer the door, answer any questions and/or let the police officer search anything on his/her property. However, if the police officer wants to bring a drug dog onto the property to sniff around for illegal drugs, the police officer would need a search warrant or consent from an authorized person first.