Police officers in Nebraska and around the country often summon K-9 units when they believe that vehicles contain firearms, explosives or illegal drugs. Police dogs can be trained to detect tiny amounts of gunpowder or narcotics, which is why the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a K-9 alert during an air sniff around a vehicle provides probable cause to conduct a warrantless search. However, the nation’s highest court has also placed limits on how police dogs are used. Those limits may soon be scrutinized again if the justices decide to grant certiorari in a case involving an Idaho man who was convicted on felony drug charges and a police dog named Nero.
The man’s car was pulled over by a Mountain Hope police in 2019 after an officer allegedly observed it making an illegal turn and crossing three traffic lanes. A K-9 unit was called to the scene when the man refused to allow officers to search his vehicle. While conducting an air sniff, the police dog jumped up and placed its front paws on one of the car’s doors. When they searched the car, police officers discovered a pill bottle and traces of methamphetamine. Police used this evidence to obtain a search warrant for the man’s motel room, and they charged him with felony drug possession when more illegal substances were found.
Idaho Supreme Court ruling
The man’s subsequent conviction was appealed by his criminal defense attorney. The lawyer claimed that the air sniff became an illegal search when the police dog jumped up, and the Idaho Supreme Court agreed. The justices ruled by a 3-2 vote that the search was unconstitutional because the K9 unit committed trespass when it placed its paws on the man’s car.
The Fourth Amendment
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to grant certiorari in this case because it concerns the Fourth Amendment, and police departments have not fared well when similar cases have been heard in the past. In 2013, the nation’s highest court ruled that police officers who walked a K-9 unit past a suspected drug dealer’s home violated the protection against unreasonable search and seizure.