Who Let the Dogs Out? Sniffing Out the Fourth Amendment


The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In Katz v. United States, the Fourth Amendment was expanded to protect an individual’s right to privacy. Since then, a two-prong test was implemented in Smith v. Maryland to determine if the Fourth Amendment was applicable. Fourth Amendment rights are granted if:

  1. a person “has exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy” AND
  2. society is prepared to recognize that this expectation is (objectively) reasonable.

Now, how do we apply the Fourth Amendment to tenants who live in apartment buildings with common areas?

The Split

Five circuits have held that tenants do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the common areas of their apartments. The circuits reason that the common areas of apartments are open to people beyond the control of the tenants. This includes delivery people, repair services, and visitors of other tenants.

The Sixth Circuit is the only circuit that holds it is reasonable for tenants to expect privacy in the common areas of their apartments. The Sixth Circuit agrees that people beyond the tenants control will enter the common area, but there is an actual expectation of privacy from the general public or trespassers.

“I thought this article was going to be about dogs. I only read this for the dogs. Where are the dogs?”

The Seventh Circuit is one of the five circuits that held that tenants do not have a reasonable right to privacy in common areas of their apartments United States v. Concepcion.

However, the Seventh Circuit held in a recent decision, United States v. Whitaker, that the use of a drug sniffing dog in a common hallway, lead to a tenant’s door, is a ‘search’. The Seventh Circuit cited Justice Kagan’s concurrence in Florida v. Jardines. A drug sniffing dog is considered to be a super sensitive instrument that has the ability to detect objects and activities that are “not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a “search” and requires a warrant.”

The Seventh Circuit was very careful to define that the tenant in Whitaker did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the common area, but held that a drug-sniffing dog comparable to a sensitive device is not a reasonable expectation for the tenant. Here, a drug sniffing dog resulted in an unreasonable search by the government in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Looking Forward

The Fourth Amendment strives to protect the privacy interests of individuals against illegal searches and seizures. The true spilt comes from a lack of clarity in terms of what is considered a reasonable expectation. Until there is clarity regarding a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Circuit Courts will just be chasing their own tails.

It Seemed like the Reasonable Approach at the Time: A Circuit Split on the Meaning of “Reasonable Belief” in Search and Seizure

How Many Warrants?

Two major Supreme Court decisions are at play here concerning the constitutionality of officers entering residences to execute arrest warrants when residency of the suspect is uncertain.

In the aftermath of the first case, Payton v. New York (S.Ct. 1980), the Courts of Appeals developed a two-prong test to assess the constitutionality of an officer’s entry to execute an arrest warrant: the officer must have a “reasonable belief” that (1) the “arrestee lives in the residence, and that (2) the “arrestee is within the residence.” United States v. Gay (10th Cir. 2001).

One year after Payton, the Supreme Court held that officers may not enter the residence of a third party to execute an arrest warrant unless they first obtain a search warrant based on the belief that the suspect “might be a guest there.” Steagald v. United States (S.Ct. 1981). This created a stricter standard for entering officers if they believe only that the suspect is a common “guest” in the residence rather than a resident or immediately within the residence. Thus, officers would much prefer that the arrestee is a resident and within the residence as opposed to being simply a guest.  The determination of whether officers need only an arrest warrant to enter versus an arrest warrant and a search warrant to enter a residence is entirely dependent on an officer’s “reasonable belief.”

The circuit courts have since been faced with discerning what constitutes a “reasonable belief,” thus determining when both an arrest and a search warrant are necessary for constitutional entry into third party residences as opposed to only an arrest warrant.

Circuit Split

The Third Circuit is the most recent voice to enter the interpretive dispute surrounding the standard of “reasonable belief.” United States v. Vasquez-Algarin (3rd Cir. 2016).

Joining the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, the Third Circuit held that reasonable belief should be viewed as the functional equivalent of probable cause, and thus the same standard.  The practical effect of requiring a probable cause standard is that it makes it more difficult to enter only with an arrest warrant. The Third Circuit had two primary reasons for their decision:

  • First, the Supreme Court’s use of the phrase “reason to believe,” when considered in the context of Payton and more generally the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, supports a probable cause standard.
  • Second, and more fundamentally, requiring that law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe their suspect resides at and is present within the dwelling before making a forced entry is the only conclusion commensurate with the constitutional protections the Supreme Court has accorded to the home.

Some of Vasquez-Algarin’s reasoning echoes that of the Sixth Circuit, both noting that on several occasions the Supreme Court has used the same “reason to believe” language from Payton “as a stand-in for ‘probable cause.’” (3d Cir. 2016).

The DC Circuit, First, Second, and Tenth Circuits have held that the standard for reasonable belief falls short of the standard for probable cause belief. The DC Circuit reasons that it is “more likely . . . that the Supreme Court in Payton used a phrase other than ‘probable cause’ because it meant something other than ‘probable cause.’” (2005). The Tenth Circuit equates probable cause requirements with calls for “actual knowledge of the suspect’s true residence.” (1999). It believes extending probable cause as the standard for a “reasonable basis” for determining that an individual “lived in the residence and . . . could be found within at the time of entry,” would “effectively make Payton a dead letter.” Valdez v. McPheters (10th Cir. 1999).

The Third Circuit claims that the Supreme Court’s choice of stand-in language undermines the DC Circuit’s conclusion that Payton’s ‘reason to believe’ language should be interpreted loosely. The Third Circuit explains that the Supreme Court’s use of “reason to believe” as a stand-in for “probably cause” indicates the Court’s belief that the standard for the two is the same.

Looking Forward

The incongruence in requirements for only arrest warrants versus arrest and search warrants creates such a fundamental constitutional discrepancy that the Supreme Court should address it soon.

For the last 36 years, courts have been left to grapple with the interpretation of the Court’s language in Payton, and the circuits seem to have pretty evenly split on the meaning of a “reasonable belief.” Until the Court addresses the standard for reasonable belief varying degrees of scrutiny will continue to be imposed on officers, and the degree of protection of an individual’s right to be secure in their home will remain grey.