New York Court Reaches Pro-Defendant Decision in Narcotics-Detection Dog Case, Ruling that Sniffing Does Indeed Constitute a Search

In a recent drug case in New York, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest Court held that using a narcotics-detection dog to sniff a criminal suspect’s body is defined as a “search.” Before this case, New York case law was unclear about whether this specific action constituted a search, which is relevant because any “search” by a government official automatically triggers individual protections under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. By ruling that the narcotics-detection dog’s sniffing is a search under the law, the court opened up more defendants and suspects to important protections under this Amendment.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, officers on patrol saw what they believed to be a drug transaction one evening in a parking lot. The officers followed one of the individuals in his car when he left the parking lot, later stopping him for a traffic violation. The officers then requested that the suspect consent to a search of his vehicle. When the suspect declined, the officers brought out their canine to sniff for drugs both around the vehicle and on the defendant’s person.

The dog involved in the search alerted on three different occasions during the interaction. The suspect began to run away, and the officers chased him, caught him, and eventually found a plastic bag with 76 glassine envelopes of heroin. The suspect was charged with criminal possession of drugs, and he then filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the drugs.

The Decision

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress, which the defendant then appealed. On appeal, the court had to make an important decision: did the canine’s sniffing constitute a “search”? If it did constitute a search, it meant the defendant had certain privacy protections under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which says that an officer must have probable cause to search the defendant. If it did not constitute a search, the defendant was left with fewer options, privacies, and rights under the law.

Here, the court determined that the sniff was, indeed, a search. Even though the dog did not make physical contact with the defendant, the sniffing was a significant imposition on the defendant’s sense of privacy. The sniffing threatened the defendant’s sense of personal security, providing somewhat of a frightening experience when the dog approached him from the officer’s car.

With these facts in mind, the court decided that a canine’s sniff is a search, and it is therefore subject to significant protections under the Fourth Amendment. This ruling is a win for defendants across the state of New York, signaling that the court takes privacy seriously and wants to make sure defendants have access to the rights afforded to them by the Constitution.

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