MIAMI — Franky the drug dog's super-sensitive nose is at the heart of a question being put to the U.S. Supreme Court: Does a police K-9's sniff outside a house give officers the right to get a search warrant for illegal drugs, or is the sniff itself an unconstitutional search?
Florida's highest state court said Franky's ability to detect marijuana growing inside a Miami-area house from outside a closed front door crossed the constitutional line. State Attorney General Pam Bondi, an elected Republican, wants the nation's justices to reverse that ruling.
The Supreme Court could decide this month whether to take the case, the latest in a long line of disputes about whether the use of dogs to find drugs, explosives and other illegal or dangerous substances violates the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure.
Many court watchers expect the justices will take up the Florida case.
"The Florida Supreme Court adopted a very broad reading of the Fourth Amendment that is different from that applied by other courts. It's an interpretation that a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court will question," said Tom Goldstein, who publishes the widely read SCOTUSblog website and also teaches at the Harvard and Stanford law schools.
The case, Florida v. Jardines, is being closely monitored by law enforcement agencies nationwide, which depend on dogs for a wide range of law enforcement duties.
"Dogs can be a police officer's best friend because they detect everything from marijuana or meth labs to explosives," said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami now in private practice. "They are an essential tool for law enforcement."
The 8-year-old Franky retired in June after a seven-year career as a K-9 dog with the Miami-Dade Police Department. He's responsible for the seizure of more than 2.5 tons of marijuana, 80 pounds of cocaine and $4.9 million in drug-contaminated money. And because he's an amiable chocolate Labrador, he was used extensively in airports, sports arenas and other places where people congregate.
"He's a friendly, happy dog," said his former handler, Detective Douglas Bartelt, who kept Franky after he retired. "People don't have fear because of his appearance."
The U.S. Supreme Court has OK'd drug dog sniffs in several other major cases. Two of those involved dogs that detected drugs during routine traffic stops. In another, a dog hit on drugs in airport luggage. A fourth involved a drug-laden package in transit.
The difference in the Florida case is that it involved a private residence. The high court has repeatedly emphasized that a home is entitled to greater privacy than cars on the road or a suitcase in an airport. In another major ruling, the justices decided in 2001 that police could not use thermal imaging technology to detect heat from marijuana grow operations from outside a home because the equipment could also detect lawful activity.
"We have said that the Fourth Amendment draws a firm line at the entrance to the house," the court ruled in that case, known as Kyllo v. United States. The justices added that the thermal devices could detect such intimate details as "at what hour each night the lady of the house takes her daily sauna and bath."
It's well-settled that law enforcement officials can walk up to a home and knock on the front door, in hopes that someone will open up and talk to them. But if a person inside refuses the "knock and talk" effort, the officers must get a search warrant — and for that they need evidence of a crime.