Drug Dogs

The court of appeals issued a batch of opinions yesterday. Among them is State v. Washburn, a drug dog case. An extremely compressed summary of Washburn is that an informant told the police that the defendant was a drug dealer and kept drugs at his house and at a storage unit. Based on the tip, the police took a drug dog to the storage facility, which was a climate-controlled building with storage units opening off an indoor hallway, and got the consent of the facility’s owner to walk the dog through the hallway. The dog alterted at the defendant’s unit, which led the police to get a search warrant for it, and things went downhill for the defendant pretty quickly after that.

The defendant first argued that “the dog sniff of the hallway outside of his locked storage unit constitute[d] an illegal warrantless search because he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the storage facility, including the hallway area.” In other words, he argued that the police couldn’t come into the hallway at all. The court rejected that argument, noting that (1) the hallway wasn’t very private, since all the facility’s tenants had access to it, and (2) in any event, the facility’s owner consented.

The defendant’s second argument was that even if the police were lawfully in the hallway, the dog sniff itself was a search, supported neither by a search warrant nor an exception to the warrant requirement. The opinion says that the defendant cited United States v. Thomas, 757 F.2d 1359 (2nd Cir. 1985) (holding that use of a dog to sniff outside a suspect’s apartment was a Fourth Amendment search), as support for his contention. Of course, the United States Supreme Court has told us that using a drug dog to sniff luggage at an airport isn’t a search, United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983), and that using a drug dog to sniff a vehicle during a traffic stop isn’t a search, Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005). The rationale of those cases is that drug dogs detect only contraband, which cannot lawfully be possessed, and therefore invade no reasonable, i.e., legitimate, privacy interest. Following those cases, the court of appeals rejected the defendant’s argument and declined to distinguish storage unit sniffs from vehicle sniffs. (Some of this is reading between the lines, since the court’s treatment of this issue is rather brief.) The fact that Thomas predates Caballes probably didn’t help the defendant, though a leading commentator has argued that even after Caballes, sniffs of private premises, possibly including storage units, should count as searches. 1 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure ยง 2.2 (4th ed. 2004 & pocket part) (arguing the point and collecting a few cases, including State v. Davis, 732 N.W.2d 173 (Minn. 2007), adopting his view on state constitutional grounds); see also State v. Guillen, 213 P.3d 230 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2009) (similar, also on state constitutional grounds).

It appears that Washburn closes the door on the argument that dog sniffs of private premises are searches. Perhaps one could try to distinguish a sniff of a residence from a sniff of a storage unit, but nothing in the Washburn opinion suggests that the court would view the two situations as different for Fourth Amendment purposes. So is there any circumstance under which a drug dog sniff is a search? The most likely scenario is using a drug dog to sniff a person, which may be so physically intrusive that it is a search. There is pre-Caballes authority on point, such as United States v. Kelly, 302 F.3d 291 (5th Cir. 2002), and Caballes is not necessarily to the contrary, as the driver in that case was no longer in his car at the time of the sniff. It seems to me that the defendant’s argument in such a case is much stronger than Washburn’s, but as always, I’d welcome others’ thoughts.