April 12, 2012

Colorado Supreme Court 3-26-12 People v. Esparza


People v. Esparza            4th Amendment / Definition of ‘Search’ / Dog Sniff
Facts: In Craig, Colorado, bored police stopped Ms. Esparza for a traffic violation. The police subsequently arrested her driving under suspension. After arresting her, the police brought in a supposed drug-sniffing dog to snoop around Ms. Esparza’s truck. Of course, the police claim the dog ‘hit’ on something. On later date, the same cop saw Ms. Esparza driving the truck. The cop, suspecting that Ms. Esparza’s license was still under suspension, stopped her, confirmed the suspension, and arrested her. Again, after the arrest the police brought out the drug-sniffing dog to snoop around the truck. Again, the police claim the dog ‘hit’ on something. The something the dog hit on? A pipe supposedly used to smoke meth – nothing else, no baggies, no usable quantities, not anything - just burnt residue.
Issue: Whether the dog sniff constituted a search?
Held: No.
Reasoning: Justice Coates, writing for the majority, confuses the right to be free from unreasonable searches with the illegality of meth. He wrote, “We now hold that an interest in possessing contraband cannot be deemed legitimate under the state constitution any more than under the federal constitution, and that official conduct failing to compromise any legitimate interest in privacy cannot be deemed a search under the state constitution any more than under the federal constitution.” To Justice Coates and the rest of the majority, the ends justify the means. Because no one possesses any legitimate privacy interest in something illegal, police conduct to recover the contraband cannot be unconstitutional. It’s tautological, of course.
            Deputy Public Defender Emily Wickham, the lawyer who defended Ms. Esparza and argued the case on interlocutory appeal, understood the tautology. Ms. Wickham smartly couched her entire argument under the state constitution because in Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 409 (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court espoused the same tautology, and found a similar dog sniff constitutional under the U.S. Constitution
(The super sniffing dog ‘hit’ on burnt residue in a pipe? People believe this?)

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