Sixth Circuit Holds “Instinctive Jump” is Not a Search in Violation of the Fourth Amendment – United States v. Sharp


On July 27th, 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee’s ruling that a canine’s jump and subsequent sniff inside the defendant’s car was not a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment because the jump was instinctive and not the product of police encouragement.  The Sixth Circuit’s affirmation relied heavily on the idea that the canine’s jump into the car was “instinctive” and not the product of police encouragement.

Defendant David W. Sharp was arrested on an unrelated warrant, after which police seized 154 grams of methamphetamine, 10.5 grams of marijuana, and drug paraphernalia found inside a shaving kit on the passenger seat of Sharp’s car.  When the canine and his police officer-handler arrived at the scene, the handler gave the canine the command to search for drugs.  The canine sniffed the exterior of the car and did not alert the handler to the presence of drugs.

After sniffing the exterior of the car, the canine, unannounced, jumped through the open driver’s side window of Sharp’s car.  Once inside, the canine sniffed the back and front seats of the car.  Upon sniffing the passenger seat, he formally alerted the handler to the presence of drugs. The handler asked the canine to “show me.” The canine poked the shaving kit on the front passenger seat with his nose.

At issue was the legality of the search performed by the canine on the inside of the defendant’s car.  The court was quick to note that many circuits have addressed this issue and have held that, absent “police encouragement,” such searches are not in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Defendant argued that the canine’s jump into the car was not “instinctive” because the canine was trained to sniff for drugs, and the very action of jumping into the car was merely the carrying out of that training.  The court quickly rejected defendant’s argument and instead focused on the police’s conduct.  Specifically, the court focused on whether the police trained the canine to jump into cars, or encouraged or facilitated the canine jumping into defendant’s car, such as opening the car door or rolling down the window.

The Sixth Circuit ultimately held that, absent police training, encouragement or facilitation of the canine jumping into a car, it is not a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment if the canine “instinctively” jumps into a vehicle. The court found that in this particular case no such training or encouragement was present, and that the canine instinctively jumped into the defendant’s car because it smelled drugs, not because it was trained to jump into the car or encouraged to do so by the police.  The Sixth Circuit now joins the Third, Eighth and Tenth Circuits in reaching this conclusion.

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Read United States v. Sharp on Justia