Supreme Court to decide two Fourth Amendment cases


By N. Ryan LaBar | Criminal Defense Attorney

There are two important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that could significantly affect defendants' Fourth Amendment rights. The first involves dog sniffs while the second puts DNA evidence under scrutiny.

Dog sniff case

In late October, the Supreme Court heard a case involving the constitutionality of dog sniffing evidence. The facts are clear: Police officers had heard from an informant that there was illegal drug activity at a home. They took their drug-sniffing dog to the home's front steps, where the dog indicated that there were drugs present in the home. They then used the evidence to obtain a search warrant.

The Court must decide whether such police activity violates an individual's Fourth Amendment right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure.

In the past, the Court has held that an individual's right to privacy in his or her home is greater than in his or her car. They have allowed dog sniffs outside of a vehicle but have yet to decide whether a dog sniff on a potential defendant's doorstep is legal. They have, however, held that police cannot use heat-seeking devices without search warrants because the information "could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area."

DNA case

The Court has also decided to hear a case out of Maryland that questions whether taking DNA from an arrestee is constitutional. In that case, a man was convicted of rape after DNA evidence obtained from him during his arrest for assault was matched in a DNA database. The Maryland Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) held that DNA evidence could not be used against a person who was not yet convicted of a crime. It compared DNA evidence, which holds a vast array of information about a defendant, to fingerprinting evidence, which simply gives information about a defendant's identity.

Should the Court agree with the Maryland Court of Appeals, prosecutors from state and federal offices will need to stop collecting DNA before a conviction. The Court has previously held, however, that taking DNA evidence from individuals convicted of a crime is okay because those individuals already have fewer privacy rights.

The Court will likely release its opinions in these cases in June 2013. Its decisions could not only clarify the issues but also set the stage for a number of additional Fourth Amendment questions.

Learn more about Fourth Amendment rights by visiting our page on illegal search and seizure.

Source: The New York Times, "Sniffing Dogs and the Fourth Amendment," Oct. 31, 2012


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