Steve Chapman

The New Yorker magazine once had a cartoon showing a storefront office with the company name on the window: "None of Your Damn Business Inc." If it were publicly traded, the corporation's stock would be down this morning.

That's because of Tuesday's ruling by the Supreme Court in a case barely noticed amid the frenzy of interest in the arguments on same-sex marriage. The decision looks like a victory for personal privacy. But the beauty may prove to be skin deep.

The case arose after two Miami-Dade police escorted a drug-sniffing dog to Joelis Jardines' front porch, where the dog signaled the presence of narcotics.

They got a warrant to search the house, where they found marijuana plants. Jardines contended the search violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches, and the Florida Supreme Court agreed. By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

So far, so good. Unless they get a judge to issue a search warrant, the police may not tromp through your home looking for cannabis. Nor may they climb a ladder to peek in the window. Using dogs to detect something that can't be detected by normal human senses is the equivalent of a physical search.

That should have been a slam dunk. In 2001, the justices ruled that law enforcement agents are not entitled to use a thermal imaging device to detect heat emissions from a home -- which could betray the use of high-wattage lamps used to grow pot. The court said this is no more permissible than it would be to let cops employ a new technology that can see through walls.

"We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area constitutes a search -- at least where (as here) the technology in question is not in general public use," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia. You would think special sense-enhancing technology with four legs and a wet nose would likewise trample on privacy.

But for some reason Scalia, who wrote the court's latest opinion as well, shied away from extending his impeccable logic. Instead, he said the dog-sniffing was out of line because it involved trespassing on private property. Once the officers ventured into the area owned by Jardines without his permission, the Fourth Amendment limited what they could do.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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