The Fourth Amendment protects Iowa residents against unreasonable searches and seizures, but police officers are permitted to conduct warrantless searches when they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. Police dogs are trained to detect even trace amounts of explosives or illegal drugs, which is why the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that K-9 units provide officers with probable cause to search when they alert while sniffing the air around a suspect’s vehicle. A case involving an Idaho man who was convicted on felony drug possession charges and a police dog named Nero has raised questions about the scope of this ruling.
The events that led to Nero becoming the topic of fierce legal debate unfolded in 2019. That was when a Mountain Hope Police Department officer pulled over a vehicle that he allegedly observed making an unauthorized turn and crossing three lanes of traffic. Nero was ordered to conduct an air sniff around the car when the man behind the wheel refused to consent to a search. During the air sniff, the dog is said to have jumped up and placed its front paws on one of the car’s doors. When they searched the vehicle, officers allegedly found a pill bottle and methamphetamine residue. The man was charged with felony drug possession after officers discovered a further 19 grams of methamphetamine in his motel room.
Search ruled unconstitutional
The man was convicted based on the evidence discovered in his motel room, but his criminal defense attorney argued that the drugs should have been excluded because a search warrant was only issued after Nero violated the Fourth Amendment. The Idaho Supreme Court voted 3-2 that police dogs commit trespass when they touch vehicles during air sniffs, which means the search was ruled unconstitutional. Legal experts expect the U.S. Supreme Court to grant the case certiorari.
Legal gray areas
The U.S. Supreme Court provides clarity when lower court rulings create legal gray areas. This case raises questions about how far police dogs can go when they sniff the air around vehicles, and previous rulings make it difficult to predict how the U.S. Supreme Court will interpret the law. The nation’s highest court has ruled that air sniffs are constitutional, but the justices have also ruled that walking a K9 unit past a suspected drug dealer’s home violated the Fourth Amendment.