On behalf of Jeffrey Engle at Shaffer & Engle Law Offices LLC

The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued a series of rulings on drug-sniffing dog cases. Two cases gaining the most publicity involve the use of a narcotics trained dog on a home's front porch and in a traffic stop.

Both cases will impact criminal charges in Pennsylvania.

Case #1: Florida v. Harris

In, Florida v. Harris, the court considered the background required for a narcotics dog to be considered "reliable." The case began with a traffic stop, during which the officer noticed the driver appeared anxious. The officer requested a search of the vehicle, and the driver denied the request. The officer then brought his drug-sniffing dog Aldo to conduct a "free-air sniff search" around the vehicle. The dog alerted to presence of an illegal substance near the driver's side door. Based on this alert, the officer conducted a more thorough search of the vehicle which led to the discovery of the ingredients used to make methamphetamine. The driver was charged with the commission of drug crimes.

The driver argued that the dog's alert was not reliable since the dog had a record of false positive alerts. If the dog's alert were found to be unreliable, the court may have ruled the search an illegal invasion of privacy and thrown out the evidence. This likely would have led to a dropping of the criminal charges.

The court did not agree with the driver's arguments, instead finding that a narcotics dog simply needs to receive proper training and certification to be deemed reliable.

Case #2: Florida v. Jardines

The second case, Florida v. Jardines, questioned where drug-sniffing dogs were allowed to conduct searches without invading the right to privacy.

The case began with an anonymous tip that a residential home was used being used to grow marijuana. Based on this tip, officers brought a narcotics dog to conduct a free-air sniff search of the property's front porch. The dog alerted to drugs at the front door, providing probable cause for the issuance of a search warrant which led to the discovery of multiple cannabis plants and drug charges.

The homeowner argued that the search was an illegal invasion of privacy, and the Supreme Court agreed. Ultimately, the Court found the front porch is considered part of a home's curtilage - essentially an extension of the home that is covered by the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As a result, narcotics dogs are not allowed to search a front porch.

This holding could lead to a dismissal of the charges, since the evidence will likely be thrown out of court.

Impact on Pennsylvania criminal charges

Although both cases originate in Florida, the holdings will impact Pennsylvania law. Holdings issued by the Supreme Court are considered law throughout the country.

Drug charges in Pennsylvania come with serious penalties. Criminal penalties can include the following mandatory minimum sentences:

  • The finding of two to ten pounds of marijuana leads to one year imprisonment and a $5,000 monetary fine
  • Ten to fifty pounds of marijuana leads to three years imprisonment and a $15,000 fine
  • Fifty or more pounds of marijuana leads to five years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine

If enforcement officers do not follow the law when conducting a search, evidence may be thrown out. This can lead to a reduction or dismissal of charges.

If you are charged with a drug crime, contact an experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyer to help build a strong defense to the charges and better ensure your legal rights are protected.