Supreme Court to Decide If K-9 Committed an Illegal Search

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic
K9 and photography/Shutterstock

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether a police K-9 violated the Constitution by placing his paws on the suspect’s vehicle during a traffic stop.

The nine justices should decide whether to hear the Mountain Home Police Department’s appeal to a lower court ruling that concluded its K-9 officer, named Nero, unlawfully placed his paws on the car that was pulled over after an improper turn. 

According to USA Today, the alleged offense occurred in the summer of 2019, in Idaho. The court records show that the suspect, Kirby Dorff, made an improper turn with his car and swerved across three lanes. 

Supposedly, a Belgian Malinois named Nero performed his duties by sniffing out a pill bottle and a plastic bag that contained trace amounts of methamphetamine. This evidence allowed police officers in Idaho to obtain a warrant to search the suspect’s motel room.

During the search, they discovered 19 more grams of methamphetamine and other drug equipment, which was enough to arrest Dorff on felony drug possession charges. 

Dorff was convicted. However, he later appealed, claiming that the K-9 officer had trespassed on his car, violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. 

Eventually, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in his favor. The court overturned Dorff’s convictions because Nero’s actions led to a warrantless search. Police officers argued that Dorff didn’t have a valid driver’s license when he was stopped after swerving across three lanes.

While one officer talked to Dorff, Nero and his handler approached the vehicle. Nero immediately started sniffing around the car, directing his attention to the wheels and the underside.

The body cam footage showed that Nero jumped up twice on the passenger side of the car the second time he circled the car. On the third pass, the K-9 planted his paws on the driver’s door and window. 

Executive Director of the United States Police Canine Association, Dan Slavik, explained that, when chasing a scent, police canines sometimes stand on their hind legs and put their front legs on the car for balance.

“Dogs are used to detect odors because of their unique ability to follow a trained odor to its source. Once the dog detects the trained odor, it will follow the scent to the source or come as close as possible to it,” said Slavik.

However, in a 3-2 vote Idaho’s Supreme Court ruled in Dorff’s favor, elaborating that there’s a major difference between a dog sniffing the air around the vehicle and touching it in an attempt to sniff inside. 

As we had said before, ‘There is no asterisk to the Fourth Amendment excusing the unconstitutional acts of law enforcement when they are accomplished by means of a trained dog,” the court wrote. “Thus, although it was accomplished by Nero, it was law enforcement who violated Dorff’s dignitary interest in maintaining the inviolability of his chattel.”

However, not every justice agreed with this decision.

Idaho Supreme Court Justice Gregory Moeller wrote that he disagrees “That an unreasonable search or physical intrusion occurred because Nero’s paws briefly touched the exterior of Dorff’s vehicle.”

Chief Justice Richard Beven agreed, explaining that “Reasonableness thus requires us to consider the degree of government intrusion, not to simply suppress all evidence where any intrusion occurred.” 

Beven wrote that the decision “converts" the analysis of the Fourth Amendment into a “liability system” because he believes the officer’s intent of handling the dog and the extent of how the canine intruded are irrelevant. 

It’s hard to say what the U.S. Supreme Court may rule in this case, if it decides to hear it. 

Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

More by Nevena Nacic