Thursday, June 11, 1998

Colorado Supreme Court People v. Unruh 84SA299

Decided 1-21-86.

   A police officer drove past three guys who were attempting to conceal something large and heavy in the trunk of a car.  When he came back, the car was abandoned, and the object in question turned out to be a safe.  One of the suspects was apprehended, and admitted to burglarizing a nearby house.  This suspect also claimed that the safe contained cash and drugs.  Another detective found a house nearby that appeared to have been broken into (the door had been broken open).  Officers searched the house, and found drug paraphernalia.  Unruh came home confirmed that his safe was stolen, and was informed that it had been taken to the police station and that he could get it in a day or so.

   While the safe was still at the station, officers had a K9 sniff the exterior of the safe.  The K9 alerted, indicating the presence of drugs.  Police obtained a search warrant, and found a lot of cocaine and marijuana in the safe.  Unruh was charged and convicted, and appealed his conviction on the grounds that evidence against him should have been suppressed.

   The Colorado Supreme Court recognized that other courts had already held that a dog sniff was not a search under the fourth amendment, but decided to afford greater protection against searches under the Colorado Constitition.  So the court ruled that a dog sniff was in fact a search, but that because of the minimal intrusion involved, it could be justified on the basis of reasonable suspicion.  Unruh also argued for suppression on the basis that the search of his house was unreasonable.  The court held that the search of his house was valid under the emergency exception (police officers may enter private property without a warrant where there is a reasonable belief that the premises have been or are being burglarized in order to secure the premises and to search for suspects and victims), and that although impermissibly expanded the search beyond the scope of the exception (they looked in dresser drawers, apparently they were looking for very small suspects), the paraphernalia was found in a place where they had authority to search.  So the warrant was good, and the conviction was upheld.