Supreme Court to Weigh in on Constitutional Challenge: Did Police Dog’s Paws Violate Fourth Amendment During Traffic Stop?

by Lisa

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Supreme Court is set to consider a case with significant implications for the application of the Fourth Amendment in law enforcement procedures, as it grapples with the question of whether a police dog‘s act of placing its paws on a vehicle during a traffic stop constituted an unreasonable search.

The case revolves around Nero, a Belgian Malinois police dog, who became a central figure in a legal dispute when he placed his paws on a car door during a routine traffic stop in Idaho. The stop was initiated after the driver, Kirby Dorff, swerved across three lanes, prompting police intervention.


Nero’s canine instincts led to the discovery of a pill bottle and a plastic bag containing methamphetamine residue inside the vehicle. This discovery, in turn, provided the basis for law enforcement to secure a warrant and charge Dorff with felony drug possession.


However, the legality of Nero’s actions and the subsequent search are now under scrutiny. The central issue being examined is whether Nero’s act of touching the car door constituted an unreasonable search, in potential violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against such searches.


The Idaho Supreme Court, in a ruling from March, determined that Nero’s enthusiastic behavior indeed amounted to a warrantless search, leading to the overturning of Dorff’s conviction.


This case is one of several that the Supreme Court has taken up this year that examines the authority of law enforcement officers under the Fourth Amendment in the context of vehicle stops. Another case involves an officer’s discovery of a joint under a driver’s seat after the car door was left open, while a third challenges San Diego’s practice of chalking tires for parking enforcement.

In a previous landmark decision in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Miami-Dade police had violated the Fourth Amendment by using a police dog to inspect the home of a suspect believed to be growing marijuana. In another case from the same year, a majority of the Court upheld a Florida police officer’s use of a drug-sniffing dog during a routine traffic stop.

However, it’s worth noting that four of the justices involved in those earlier cases have since left the Court, including Justice Antonin Scalia, a prominent advocate for Fourth Amendment protections who passed away in 2016.

Catherine Grosso, a law professor at Michigan State University, commented on the significance of these cases, particularly in the absence of Justice Scalia: “I don’t know where the Court, without Scalia, would come out on those cases. But they’re important cases for us to understand the boundaries of police investigation regulation under the Fourth Amendment.”

The incident at the heart of this case occurred on a summer night in 2019 when Mountain Home police conducted a traffic stop on Dorff for what they deemed an improper turn and erratic lane changes. Nero, the police dog, arrived on the scene shortly thereafter.

Body-camera footage revealed that Nero and his handler circled the vehicle twice. On the second pass, the footage showed Nero jumping up multiple times and even placing his paws on the driver’s side door and window. Subsequently, law enforcement officers discovered the methamphetamine evidence within the car, leading to the issuance of a warrant to search Dorff’s motel room, where additional drugs were found.

Don Slavik, the Executive Director of the United States Police Canine Association, offered insight into K-9 behavior, explaining that police dogs sometimes stand on their hind legs and place their front legs on a car for balance while tracking a scent.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will play a pivotal role in shaping the boundaries of law enforcement’s actions under the Fourth Amendment when approaching vehicles during traffic stops.


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