Drug-sniffing dog outside an apartment isn’t a ‘search’, MN Supreme Court rules

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court today overturned a Court of Appeals ruling that using a drug-sniffing dog outside a person’s apartment without a warrant is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. It was an apparent 3-to-2 vote.

Last September, the appeals court overturned the firearms and drug convictions of suspected drug dealer Cortney John Edstrom, saying if a court ruled a drug sniffing dog outside an apartment isn’t an invasion of privacy, the Fourth Amendment would be of little use to apartment dwellers.

Today, Minnesota’s highest court said it’s not.

The police were working on a tip that Edstrom was dealing meth in his Brooklyn Park apartment in 2015. Without a warrant, they brought in a dog that alerted them to the presence of drugs in the apartment. Then they got a warrant for a search, in which drugs and a weapon were found.

While a person’s home can be considered constitutionally protected, the Supreme Court said today, an apartment hallway is not, even if the dog had to sniff at the seam of Edstrom’s door to smell the drugs.

Writing for the majority (see opinion), Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said the essential question of the expectation of privacy in the hallway is whether the device police used — in this case: a dog — is “’capable of detecting lawful activity’” as well as illegal activity,” Gildea said in citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

It’s a dog. It doesn’t know the difference between lawful and illegal, she reasoned.

She said dog sniffs “do not implicate an expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable, and as a result, they are not searches.”

“The record shows that police were lawfully present in the hallway because they had the building owner’s permission to be in the building to conduct law-enforcement-related activities,” she wrote in today’s opinion. ” Moreover, Edstrom concedes, and we agree, that the police had a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity when they conducted the narcotics-dog sniff.”

In a dissent, however, Justice David Lillehaug, joined by Justice Margaret Chutich, said that extending protections to homeowners over apartment dwellers (the court would have ruled differently, for example, if the dog were on a homeowners porch instead of an apartment building hallway) discriminates against Minnesotans based on where they live.

“Homes are homes,” he said. “Minnesotans’ constitutional rights should not depend on the form of their dwelling.”

“People cannot be secure in their homes—whether the home is an apartment, a townhome, or a single-family house—if trained dogs can sniff the immediate surroundings of those dwellings without a search warrant,” he insisted.

Respectfully, the court’s narrow reading of Jardines [ed. note: a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court ruled a dog sniffing a door on a porch is a search under the Fourth Amendment] undermines the rights of Minnesotans who live in multi-unit dwellings. To be sure, people of every age, race, and income level live in apartments, whether rentals or condominiums. Nevertheless, as other courts have recognized, “a strict apartment versus single-family house distinction [regarding curtilage] is troubling because it would apportion Fourth Amendment protections on grounds that correlate with income, race, and ethnicity.”

With today’s ruling, the case now goes back to the Court of Appeals, which presumably will uphold Edstrom’s conviction.

The oral arguments in the case earlier this year were held at Anoka High School before 850 students.