Drug Detection Dog Search in a Secured Apartment Building - Get a Warrant!

This week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an important decision, pulling back the expanding usage of drug detection dogs for searches of controlled substances. In State v. Edstrom, the Court of Appeals held that law enforcement must get a warrant (or have an exception to the warrant requirement) in order to use a drug detection dog at the door of an apartment inside a secured, multi-unit apartment building. Absent a warrant, the use of the drug detection dog in this setting violates a defendant’s legitimate expectations of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Before getting to the analysis, it’s important to understand the facts of the case because this is a very facts-specific holding. After receiving information from a confidential informant that a tenant in an apartment building was selling a substantial amount of methamphetamine, law enforcement were able to confirm that the suspect resided inside the multi-unit apartment building with a secured entrance. Property management maintained a lockbox with a building key inside that enabled law enforcement to gain access into the building. After gaining entry into the building through this manner, law enforcement used a certified drug detection dog on the entire floor where the suspect resided. The drug detection dog provided a positive alert for the presence of controlled substances at the door to the suspect’s apartment. Based upon these results and the information provided by the confidential informant, law enforcement obtained a warrant that led to the discovery of evidence used against the defendant.

The defendant challenged the warrantless search by the drug detection dog on two bases: (1) it was an unconstitutional intrusion into his home because the apartment door is curtilage and (2) he has a reasonable expectation of privacy at the door.

The Court disagreed with the defendant’s first argument. An apartment door is not considered curtilage by the standard definition. The area immediately surrounding and associated with a home is its curtilage. Based upon prior Minnesota case law, the Court maintained that the area immediately outside an apartment door is not enclosed and visible to anyone walking by it, making it not curtilage.

After disposing of that argument, the Court found the defendant’s second argument convincing. Central to this holding is the fact that a person must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the thing to be searched. Here, the area to be searched is the inside of the apartment because the drug detection dog is using its trained nose to detect what is inside the apartment. And there is little doubt that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their home or, in this case, apartment. The Fourth Amendment protects persons from the warrantless use of sense-enhancing technology that is not in general public use to obtain “any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area.” A drug detection dog is considered a sense-enhancing tool for law enforcement. Thus, in order to use a drug detection dog in a secured apartment building hallway, it is simple – get a warrant!

This is an important decision by the Court of Appeals. It’s a nice break in a troubling trend that has seen the court be much more lenient with Fourth Amendment requirements in order to assist law enforcement. If your Fourth Amendment protections seem to be infringed upon by law enforcement, you need to get an aggressive defense attorney to fight for you. Successful attacks of searches can lead to the suppression of evidence and even dismissal of the case.