case law update

Fifth Circuit: Search Based on Dog Sniff of a Garage “Close Enough” for the Good Faith

Written by FEDagent on .

Last week, the Fifth Circuit determined that the good faith exception applied to prevent the suppression of evidence obtained after officers used a canine to sniff the perimeter of a garage. The court found unpublished and inconclusive case law sufficient to demonstrate that a dog sniff of a garage is “close enough to the line of validity.”

On March 6, 2008, a confidential informant notified Officer Travis Putman that James Cecil Holley, Jr. was distributing large quantities of marijuana. Officer Putman conducted a records search that revealed Holley was associated with a house on Gray Wolf Trail in the Dallas, TX area.

On two separate occasions officers arrived at the house with a trained canine to conduct a sniff of the garage door. On both occasions, the canine alerted to the presence of drugs. Officer Putman sought and received a search warrant for the Gray Wolf Trail house based on this information. During a search of the house, officers discovered cash money, digital scales, ten pounds of marijuana, a .45 caliber handgun, loaded magazines, a drug ledger, and a utility bill for a house on Winterwood Lane under the name of Justin Dismore.

Thereafter, the officers began to investigate the house on Winterwood Lane. Like with the Gray Wolf Trail house, an officer arrived with a trained canine to conduct a sniff of the garage door. After the dog alerted to the presence of drugs, the officers obtained a search warrant for this house as well. The search resulted in the discovery of a large hydroponic marijuana cultivation operation, 263 marijuana plants, and evidence linking Holley to the house.

In 2009, investigators search two other houses connected with Holley, one on McShann Road and one on Harvest Hill Road. A search of the McShann Road house revealed another hydroponic marijuana cultivation operation, 273 marijuana plants, eleven pounds of bagged marijuana, a digital scale, a drug ledger, and a utility bill in the name of Louis Lee. When searching the Harvest Hill Road house, the officers found a schematic drawing for a hydroponic marijuana cultivation system.

On May 28, 2014, a federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment charging Holley with conspiracy to commit a drug trafficking crime, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Holley moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the various searches, arguing that the dog sniffs of the Gray Wolf Trail house and the Winterwood Lane house violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied Holley’s motions to suppress and a jury later returned a guilty verdict on all counts. In March 2015, the district court sentenced Holley to 185-months imprisonment followed by eight years of supervised release.

Holley appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, contending that the dog sniffs violated his Fourth Amendment rights under Florida v. Jardines, 133 S. Ct. 1409 (2013). He further contended that the McShann Road warrant was a fruit of the poisonous tree because it was based on these searches.

For purposes of the court’s analysis, it assumed without deciding that the dog sniffs violated the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the court’s primary consideration on appeal involved whether or not the good faith exception applied to the facts of this case.

Holley contended that the good faith exception did not apply because the warrants at issue were based upon the preceding unconstitutional and warrantless dog sniff searches. He further argued that the good faith exception is categorically inapplicable when a warrant is obtained using tainted evidence. The court disagreed. The court found that Holley’s position was inconsistent with its recent decision in United States v. Massi, 761 F.3d 512 (5th Cir. 2014).

In Massi, the court held that evidence seized pursuant to a warrant is admissible, even if the warrant resulted from an illegal search so long as: 1) the conduct that uncovered evidence is “close enough to the line of validity” that an objectively reasonable officer would not have realized the warrants were tainted, and 2) the warrant was sought and executed by an officer in good faith. Because there was no allegation the officers did not seek the warrants in good faith, the only question involved whether the dog sniffs were “close enough to the line of validity.”

The court determined that the good faith exception applied in this case despite noting that the “issue is close.” The court rejected the dissent’s assertion, relying on Jardines and Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001), that a reasonable officer should have realized that a dog sniff of a garage door was categorically unconstitutional. In 2008, when the dog sniffs took place, the Fifth Circuit only issued one decision, United States v. Tarazon-Silva, 266 F.3d 341 (5th Cir. 1998), that addressed a similar search. Tarazon-Silva was an unpublished decision upholding a dog sniff of the outer edge of a defendant’s garage because it did not occur on the protected curtilage.

While the court cited several other decisions outside of the circuit that were neither binding nor conclusive, it determined that this case law demonstrated that the dog sniffs were “close enough to the line of validity.” Even now, the court stated that it is unclear whether a dog sniff of a garage door is unconstitutional. As such, the court affirmed the three convictions.

Read the full case: United States v. Holley


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Fourth Amendment, case law update, fourth amendment right, residential search, michael j sgarlat, canine