from the probable-cause-needed-to-deploy-probable-cause-on-four-legs dept
Drug dogs are man’s best friend, if that man happens to be The Man. “Probable cause on four legs” is the unofficial nickname of these clever non-pets, which give signals only their handlers can detect which give cops permission to perform searches that otherwise would require a warrant.
They’re normally seen at traffic stops and border checkpoints, but they’re also used to sniff other places cops want to search but don’t want to get a warrant to do so. This has led to a few legal issues for law enforcement, with courts occasionally reminding them that a dog sniff is a search and, if the wrong place is sniffed, it’s a constitutional violation.
The top court in Connecticut has curtailed the use of drug dogs in certain areas, finding that sniffs are still searches and these searches are unreasonable under the state constitution if performed in certain areas — namely outside the doors of motel rooms. (via FourthAmendment.com)
In this case, police officers allowed their dog to sniff at doors of motel rooms until it alerted on a door. Using this quasi-permission, officers entered the room and found contraband. The government argued that even if it was a search, it was performed in a place (a hotel or motel) where citizens would have a lowered expectation of privacy, considering the fact the rooms are only rented, utilized for only a short time, and accessible by hotel staff.
In a really well-written opinion [PDF], the court reminds the government that a lowered expectation of privacy is not the same as a nonexistent expectation of privacy. And, more importantly, it reminds them that, while motel rooms may not have the sanctity of people’s permanent homes, it is a home away from home and afforded more protection than, say, a car parked on the curb of a public road.
The court addresses all of the government’s arguments and finds none of them persuasive.
First, the state asserts that, in contrast to an apartment, a motel room most often serves merely as transitory quarters rather than a private, permanent residence. Although we agree generally with this observation, it is well settled that motel guests, like home dwellers, have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their rooms. The fact that a motel is not a home when, as is ordinarily the case, a stay there is temporary, does not, ipso facto, establish the scope of the privacy that transient motel guests reasonably may expect.
Holding otherwise would allow cops to engage in all sorts of searches simply by claiming one thing is not as private as another thing.
Indeed, this court previously has recognized that those aspects of a hotel or motel that reduce a guest’s expectations of privacy but do not increase the vulnerability of guests to the particular type of intrusion at issue are irrelevant in assessing the legality of that intrusion. If it were otherwise, the only guidance that courts would have in determining whether certain conduct by the police constituted an unlawful search of a motel room would be the vague and conclusory statement that motel guests have a diminished expectation of privacy as compared to residents of private homes.
That reference to the “particular type of intrusion” is also fatal to the government’s third argument, which said that because conversations can be overheard due to close proximity to other rooms and that hotel staff can enter rooms and find contraband, the shared hallways are places cops can let drug dogs legally roam. But a drug dog’s sniff is not either of the state’s examples, so the analogy is not only bogus, but an unlawful presumption.
We do not agree, however, that a room occupied by a motel guest is more vulnerable to a warrantless canine sniff than an apartment, condominium or house simply because other guests occupy nearby rooms or because the rooms may be entered by motel staff to perform certain functions unless guests place a ‘‘Do Not Disturb’’ sign on the door.
And, while motel rooms necessarily won’t contain the long list of personal effects and papers people store in their homes, they’re far from devoid of personal effects.
Again, such guests ordinarily do not keep all of their personal effects in their rooms because a motel room frequently is a temporary accommodation or lodging and not the guest’s permanent residence. That fact, however, does not mandate the conclusion that the personal effects that guests often do keep there—no matter how private or personal they may be—should be subject to appreciably less protection under the law. On the contrary, we see no reason why a motel guest reasonably cannot expect a degree of privacy in his or her room sufficient to preclude random or arbitrary intrusions by the police.
The court affirms the sniff was a search and it was not permissible just because officers could access the hallways and walkways outside of the motel rooms without a warrant.
We see no reason why the fact that the police in the present case were lawfully present in an open-air walkway abutting the defendant’s motel room makes any appreciable difference with respect to this analysis. The relevant question is not how easy it may be to gain lawful access to the door of a particular dwelling or lodging, but what conduct those occupying that space reasonably may expect from persons who actually have such access.
Finally, the court points out that even the government doesn’t believe its own arguments. If it did, it would not have implied that it would find this sort of behavior by law enforcement objectionable on some level.
We note, in addition, that, if the state were correct that a canine sniff of the exterior door of a motel room is an event altogether lacking in constitutional significance, the police would be entitled to roam through the corridors of a motel conducting canine sniffs of some or all of the doors to those rooms despite having no particularized cause to believe that any of them contained drugs. In tacit acknowledgment that our citizenry would find this conduct unacceptable, the state asserts that there is no reason to believe that the police in Connecticut would engage in such a trawling exercise, even though they could do so lawfully.
If the state finds its own arguments conducive to objectionable behavior by law enforcement officers, the court can’t be expected to sign off on it.
Even if we shared the state’s confidence in that regard, however, the fact that it would be legally permissible for the police to go from door to door conducting suspicionless canine sniffs throughout the motel is itself reason to doubt the soundness of the state’s constitutional argument.
The end result for Connecticut cops? Warrants are needed for drug dog sniffs in situations like these. Reasonable suspicion is not enough.
[W]e are not persuaded that an exemption from the warrant requirement should be extended to a canine sniff of the exterior door to a motel room, as the state advocates. We believe, rather, that, in the present context, the ‘‘balance between law enforcement interests and [an individual’s] privacy interests . . . tips in favor’’ of the latter, given that ‘‘our state constitutional preference for warrants [occupies the] dominant place in that balance . . . .’’ Accordingly, we reject the state’s claim that a canine sniff of the exterior door to a motel room is lawful if supported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion and conclude, instead, that such a search satisfies state constitutional requirements only if it follows the issuance of a warrant founded on probable cause.
That’s the standard in the state now. Law enforcement officers need to seek a warrant to run a drug dog around near hotel/motel room doors. The expectation of privacy isn’t as elevated as when a person is in their own home, but there’s still enough of an expectation that officers can no longer assume rooms used temporarily and accessible by employees are also accessible to them without any additional paperwork or probable cause.