Can Police Dogs Sniff at Your Front Door Without a Warrant?

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently heard a case involving a Minnetonka man who was convicted of multiple felonies after a police dog detected illegal substances from the hallway outside the man’s condo. Police didn’t have a warrant at the time, but relying on the dog’s intuition and an anonymous tip, they applied for one that same afternoon. The man was later found to be in possession of large quantities of marijuana and oxycodone, was convicted of five felonies, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

The question before the court of appeals was whether the police effectively conducted a warrantless search of the man’s home. The majority of the Appeals Court panel did not agree that the dog sniff at the condo door counted as a “search” because the police did not penetrate the exterior boundary of the man’s home - therefore, no warrant was needed. According to now-Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, the minimal intrusion into a person’s interests in this type of situation is outweighed by the government’s interest in fighting drugs. Ultimately, as long as the police have a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal wrongdoing, the court found, police do have the authority to bring drug-sniffing dogs into a residence’s common hallways without the need for a search warrant.

According to Joseph Tamburino, who represented the defendant in this case, the Appeals Court’s decision raises troubling issues for those who live in condominiums and apartment buildings. Essentially, drug-sniffing dogs are legally allowed to sniff on the seam of a person’s door without a warrant. Mr. Tamburino points out that if this is the case, police may also argue that they can use other tools at a person’s door, like listening devices or heat seeking tools, on the threshold of private residences.

Like many others, Mr. Tamburino is concerned that the use of drug dogs in residential common areas violates minimal expectations of privacy. “When you live in a building where there are communal areas, you have less expectations of privacy,” he said of the case. “But when you get up to the doorway, it should not matter whether the doorway to your home is a free standing single-family house, a duplex, a condo building or an apartment building. That’s still the doorway to your domicile and it should be respected.”