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Illinois Supreme Court: Warrantless Dog Sniff of Apartment Front Door in Locked Building Violates Fourth Amendment

by David Reutter

Physically intruding on the cutilage of an apartment to conduct a dog sniff of the threshold is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Illinois Supreme Court held. The court’s holding expanded its precedent to include an unlocked apartment building.

Acting on a tip, East Molina Police officers on March 19, 2015, brought a drug-detection dog to Derrick Bonilla’s apartment building. They entered the unlocked doors to the building’s common areas and went to the second floor with no alert from the dog. On the third floor, the dog alerted on Bonilla’s apartment after sniffing the bottom of his front door. The officers obtained a search warrant based upon that alert and a subsequent search of Bonilla’s apartment turned up marijuana.

Bonilla was charged with unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver. He moved to suppress the evidence. The trial court granted the motion, and the State appealed. After the appellate court affirmed, the State’s petition for leave to appeal in the Illinois Supreme Court was granted.

The Court began its review by recognizing the appeal involved its application of People v. Burns, 50 N.E.3d 610 (Ill. 2016), which relied on Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013), to hold that the warrantless use of a drug-detection dog at a defendant’s apartment door located within a locked apartment building constituted an unlawful search under the Fourth Amendment. The question currently before the Court was whether that principle also applies to an unlocked apartment building. The Court ruled that it does. 

The Court explained that the “common-area hallway immediately outside of defendant’s apartment door is curtilage.” It also found that the “dog sniff of the threshold of defendant’s apartment is similar to the dog sniff of the door on the front porch in Jardines.” The Bonilla Court reasoned that “it would be unfair to say you can’t come up on a person who lives in a single family residence and sniff his door but you can go into someone’s hallway and sniff their door if they happen to live in an apartment. That’s a distinction without a difference.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that that curtilage, which is defined as “an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends,” receives Fourth Amendment protection. Thus, “we hold that in physically intruding on the cartilage of defendant’s apartment to conduct a dog sniff of the threshold, officers violated defendant’s fourth amendment rights,” the Illinois Supreme Court wrote.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment granting Bonilla’s motion to suppress. See: People v. Bonilla, 2018 IL 122484. 

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