The Supreme Court is set to deliberate on a case that has raised constitutional questions about the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches.”
Petitioners are requesting the court to hear a case revolving around Idaho police K-9 Nero, who is accused of violating the Fourth Amendment by jumping up and placing his paws on a vehicle during a routine traffic stop in Idaho.
The case, which could have far-reaching implications for law enforcement practices, originated in 2019 when Kirby Dorff was pulled over by Mountain Home police for making an erratic turn across three lanes of traffic.
According to court documents, Belgian Malinois Nero arrived at the scene with his handler and conducted a search in which the canine discovered meth residue and drug paraphernalia in the vehicle.
However, Nero’s brief action of jumping and placing his front paws onto the car’s door has sparked a legal debate.
Dorff was initially convicted of felony drug possession, but the Idaho Supreme Court overturned the conviction in March, arguing that Nero’s actions constituted a “warrantless search.”
The Idaho court distinguished between a dog merely sniffing the air around a vehicle and a dog attempting to get inside the vehicle without a warrant. In its ruling, the court likened it to the difference between a dog’s tail brushing against a car bumper and a dog actively attempting to climb onto the vehicle.
Executive Director of the U.S. Police Canine Association Don Slavik said that dogs often put their paws onto a vehicle to maintain balance when chasing a scent.
“Dogs are used to detect odors because of their unique ability to follow a trained odor to its source,” Slavik explained. “Once the dog detects the trained odor, it will follow the scent to the source or come as close as possible to it.”
According to legal experts, the case represents part of a broader examination by the Supreme Court into the power of law enforcement under the Fourth Amendment when approaching vehicles.
Another ongoing case involves an officer who spotted drugs in a car after the door was left open, and a third challenges the practice of chalking tires for parking enforcement in San Diego.
Although the Supreme Court previously ruled in 2013 that bringing a drug search dog onto a suspect’s property without a search warrant was unconstitutional, experts say the landscape has shifted since then, with several of the justices who participated in those rulings no longer on the bench.
Catherine Grosso, a law professor at Michigan State University, was uncertain about the outcome of the cases.
“I don’t know where the court — without Scalia — would come out on those cases, but they’re important cases for us to understand the bounds on the regulation of police investigation under the Fourth Amendment,” Grosso noted.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on whether to hear the case later this fall, potentially setting a precedent for the use of K-9 units in law enforcement and redefining the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment in cases involving vehicle searches.
In a separate case from Ohio, the Supreme Court is also considering an appeal involving a car search initiated when an officer opened a door during a traffic stop upon seeing marijuana.
The Ohio state Supreme Court upheld the officer’s actions, arguing that he did not intend to search the vehicle upon opening the door, but only after spotting the drugs.
Advocates argue that if upheld, this decision could give police departments significant leeway to bypass Fourth Amendment scrutiny by employing similar tactics.
The defendant’s lawyer stated: “It invites the police to play games to shield their searches from Fourth Amendment scrutiny. The police will have carte blanche to look inside any car or any home.”