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Follow his nose? Supreme Court asked to rule on drug dog sniffs

The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether a lower court's ruling on a drug crime passes the smell test. Specifically, the smell detected by a chocolate Lab named Franky.

At issue is whether the dog's ability to detect marijuana growing inside a private residence amounts to an illegal search. It's the latest case in a long-running dispute over whether the use of dogs to find drugs, explosives or other illegal substances violates the Fourth Amendment.

Franky the police dog has a nose for sniffing out crime. In 2006, he accompanied U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents acting on an anonymous tip that a house in Miami might contain a marijuana growing operation. Franky indicated he detected the smell of pot outside the front door, and agents used Franky's signal to get a warrant to search the house. The man occupying the house was arrested and officers found 179 marijuana plants with a street value of more than $700,000.

The man was charged with marijuana trafficking and grand theft, accused of stealing electricity to run the growing operation. He pleaded not guilty, with his attorney claiming that Franky's sniffing was an unconstitutional law enforcement intrusion. The judge agreed and threw out the evidence from the search, but an intermediate appeals court reversed the decision. The Florida Supreme Court then took the position of the original judge in April.

State lawyers have since petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Florida Supreme Court's decision conflicts with previous rulings. The case has been put on hold until the issue of Franky's sniff is resolved. Law enforcement agencies nationwide will watching the case closely, particularly those that rely on K-9s.

The Supreme Court has allowed dog sniffs in many cases, such as in traffic stops and packages in transport. What makes this case different from others that involve dog sniffs to find drugs or explosives? The fact that it's a private residence. Previous rulings have clarified that a home is entitled to more privacy than a car or a suitcase at the airport.

What do you think? Does the work of a drug dog outside a house constitute an illegal search? Should there be any expectation of privacy when it comes to illegal drugs? We may find out what the Supreme Court justices think soon, should they decide to take up the case this month.

Source: Associated Press, "US Supreme Court asked to ponder drug dog's sniff," Curt Anderson, Jan. 3, 2012

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