Houman Fakhimi

Orange County Drug Crime Searches to be Impacted by SCOTUS Ruling

The way police investigate Orange County drug crimes could be significantly impacted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that is underway now, stemming from a dispute in a case over privacy rights and the Fourth Amendment.

It all has to do with the drug-sniffing dogs, employed by virtually all law enforcement agencies. Orange County Defense Attorney Houman Fakhimi has long believed that the use of these animals was a clear violation of privacy rights in certain scenarios. Now, the question that the lower courts have grappled with has finally reached the Supreme Court in the form of Jardines v. Florida.

Essentially, here's what happened in the case in question:

Police in Miami in 2006 received a tip from Crimestoppers that a man was cultivating marijuana in his home. Investigators for weeks conducted surveillance at the home, but turned up little or no evidence against the defendants.

Then, an officer approached the front door with a drug-sniffing dog. The dog gave the positive signal that he detected drugs. The officer, too, noted that he smelled marijuana while standing on that doorstep. No one answered the door, but the officer used that information to secure a warrant from a magistrate.

When law enforcement entered the home, they discovered nearly 180 pot plants.

The issue in this case was never really, "Was Jardines growing marijuana?" The issue was whether the methods used by police to uncover that fact were lawful.

The trial court ultimately agreed with Jardines in saying that having a drug dog sniff your home without your permission is akin to a search, and therefore, not allowed unless there is a warrant. So all the evidence found subsequent to that search was tossed.

An appeals court disagreed with that finding, saying that a sniff by a dog is not intrusive and there's no need for a warrant to do it.

But then, the Florida Supreme Court delivered a stern ruling, saying that not only is the dog-sniff in front of the home a search, it should be considered a substantial and unreasonable intrusion, under the Fourth Amendment.

Now we are left with whatever the U.S. Supreme Court decides, which will have an impact in Orange County and beyond. It's difficult to say in which direction the justices will go. The court has previously upheld the use of drug-sniffing dogs for cars stopped along the highway and for use at airports to sniff luggage.

But a home is different. The sanctity of the home is one that is fiercely protected under the constitution - and rightfully so. In fact, the use of thermal imagers, which have the ability to detect the light and heat used to grow marijuana, were deemed unconstitutional, on the basis that the ability of officers to essentially peer into a private home was a clear invasion of privacy.

A final decision in this case is expected to be handed down sometime early this summer. We'll be watching closely.

Contact Houman Fakhimi trial attorney at (714) 705-6701 as soon as possible if you are facing drug charges in Orange County. Protecting your rights and setting up an aggressive defense at the beginning stages is critical in defending against criminal charges.