“Permeating” a Vehicle Deemed Unconstitutional Search

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In U.S. v. Taylor, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia recently held that the police strategy of “permeating” a vehicle, prior to a drug dog sniffing the vehicle for drugs, constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Permeating a vehicle, or entering the suspect’s vehicle without a warrant and tampering with the controls, involves turning the vehicle “on”, rolling up the vehicle’s windows, and adjusting the air conditioning to blow odors from the inside of the vehicle to the exterior, so the drug dog can more easily sniff out illegal drugs. This process of tampering with the interior mechanisms of the vehicle increases the likelihood that the drug dog, sniffing the exterior of the vehicle, will pick up the scent of any illegal drugs inside the vehicle. Since this search was performed without a warrant, and these officers did not have probable cause to search Taylor’s vehicle, the judge found the officers’ permeation unconstitutional. The officers’ entry into the suspect’s private automobile, to gather evidence they otherwise would have been unable to obtain lawfully, constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

Although permeation has become a fairly common practice in many jurisdictions across the country, this West Virginia court found the practice unconstitutional. The court relied on two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to make this ruling: U.S. v. Jones and Florida v. Jardines. In Jones, the Supreme Court determined that placing a GPS device on the suspect’s private property (his vehicle), without a warrant, was not only trespassing, but also constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, since this device was used to collect information about the suspect for over a month before his arrest. In Jardines, the Supreme Court upheld the Court’s decision in Jones, finding that a police officer could not enter a suspect’s porch, which was held to be an extension of the person’s home, with the intention of conducting a search of the property without a warrant. Since the officer brought a drug dog to the porch for the purpose of carrying out a warrantless search, the Court held that the officer performed an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
When permeating a vehicle, the officer unlawfully enters the suspect’s vehicle without probable cause. The officers entered Taylor’s vehicle for one reason: to “stack the deck” against him by making it more likely the drug dog sniffing the exterior of his car would be able to detect the smell of illegal drugs, if any were hidden inside the car. The West Virginia court recognized the unconstitutionality of this practice, and stood up for Taylor’s civil rights. As the Jones opinion notes, the government may not trespass, or physically enter private property, to collect information about suspects, without a warrant or probable cause. Doing so constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Because the officers physically entered the suspect’s private property without a warrant, and performed an unlawful search of his vehicle, Taylor’s constitutional rights were violated. Thus, physically entering private property without a warrant, to aid in the search of a suspect’s property, is unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.
If you, or a loved one, have fallen victim to an unlawful search, please contact the skilled attorneys at Coxwell & Associates today. To learn more about civil rights litigation, please visit our website.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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