A police dog’s paws are at the heart of a new Supreme Court case

Nero the police dog celebrating his anniversary with the Mountain Home Police Department in Idaho (Mountain Home Police Department)
Nero the police dog celebrating his anniversary with the Mountain Home Police Department in Idaho (Mountain Home Police Department)

The US Supreme Court may ultimately determine if a police dog breached the Fourth Amendment rights of a man who was found with illegal drugs.

In 2019 Kirby Dorff was stopped by police after apparently swerving across three lanes in his vehicle in Idaho.

An officer with a police dog named Nero was called to the scene. The Belgian Malinois approached the car, and leapt up, with its paws resting on the vehicle's door and window. The dog was eventually used in a search of Mr Dorff's car.

Nero rooted around inside, locating pills and a plastic bag containing meth residue. The items provided police with enough evidence to justify a warrant to search his hotel and to bring charges against Mr Dorff.

Police later found more drugs at Mr Dorff's motel room. He was tried and convicted on drug possession charges.

The driver challenged the charges, claiming he was subjected to an unreasonable search. However, Mr Dorff's challenge does not focus on Nero's search, but rather on the fact that the dog put its paws on his car door before police could justify a search.

As far as Mr Dorff is concerned, the Belgian Malinois violated his Constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

He appealed his case to the Idaho Supreme Court and won.

In a 3-2 decision, the court determined that a police dog can sniff the air around a car, but cannot touch the car while trying to sniff inside. They likened it to the difference between brushing up against a woman carrying a purse and grabbing her purse without consent, according to USA Today.

“It is also the difference between a dog’s tail that brushes against the bumper of your vehicle as it walks by − and a dog who, without privilege or consent, approaches your vehicle to jump on its roof, sit on its hood, stand on its window or door," the court wrote.

Justice Gregory Moeller wrote the dissenting opinion, saying he could not be made to believe "that an unreasonable search or a physical intrusion occurred because Nero's paws briefly touched the exterior of Dorff's vehicle."

Justice Richard Bevan called for a bit more flexibility in the interpretation of the law in his own dissenting opinion.

“Reasonableness … requires us to consider the degree of government intrusion, not to simply suppress all evidence where any intrusion occurred," he wrote.

The US Supreme Court will likely determine within the next few months if it will hear the case.