How Far Do Your Fourth Amendment Protections Extend?

There are many criminal cases that make headlines because they test the boundaries between the authority of law enforcement and the civil rights of suspects. One frequently debated topic is police searches and seizures conducted without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures.

But, practically speaking, what does that mean? In drug cases, for instance, can police legally use drug-sniffing dogs without a warrant? And if so, is there a different expectation of privacy in one’s home compared to one’s vehicle? A recent court ruling sheds some light on this issue. And although it did not occur here in Nevada, it is certainly a scenario that could happen (and almost certainly has happened) here in Las Vegas.

On two occasions in 2012, a Virginia man was arrested on drug charges at a local motel where he had rented a room. In both cases, police had acted based on anonymous tips that the man might be engaging in drug activity. They brought drug-sniffing dogs to detect the scent of drugs in common areas outside the doors of guests’ rooms. Police obtained warrants based on what the dogs had identified, and the resulting searches ended in arrests and prosecution.

Before trial, the defendant sought to suppress drug evidence, arguing that probable cause for the searches relied on the use of drug-sniffing dogs, which was essentially a warrantless search. His motion to suppress evidence was denied.

After pleading guilty, he appealed his conviction. He cited a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that using a drug-sniffing dog in the area immediately around one’s home (like a front porch) constituted a search, which means that law enforcement would need a warrant, probable cause or what are called “exigent circumstances.”

On face, that Supreme Court ruling seems to apply. But in numerous Fourth Amendment cases before the nation’s highest court, Justices have historically treated the home as the place where Americans have the highest expectation of privacy and protection against unreasonable government intrusion.

By contrast, when Americans are in public spaces (including motels), their Fourth Amendment protections are far less certain than they would be in the home. In this particular case, the drug-sniffing dogs were operating in a motel common area, which was necessarily a public space used by all guests. The Virginia Court of Appeals made similar distinctions when it upheld the man’s drug convictions late last month.

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