A civil case out of Nevada is shining a light on the use of drug dogs to detect illegal substances and just how unreliable they might be. These dogs are used increasingly to gain access to vehicles and otherwise “secure” places by law enforcement without a warrant. But the truth is: they aren’t foolproof and may even be manipulated by deceitful officers.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the current case has pit two former Nevada Highways Patrol K-9 officers and a consultant against the Metro Police Department in Vegas and the Highway Patrol. It alleges that both agencies’ police dogs were used to deliver false hits so cops could gain access under situations that would otherwise require a warrant. In other words, the dogs were being used as “trick ponies.”
The truth is, there isn’t much regulation on the use or standards of training for police drug dogs, and this could be part of the reason the dogs are so prone to misuse.
One study, and there aren’t many, showed that handlers often say their dog has alerted to the presence of drugs when there were no drugs in the room at all.
Researchers at the University of California-Davis tested 18 dogs and their handlers by putting them in a room and telling them to detect drugs and explosives. The catch—there were no drugs or explosives in the room. Still, officers and dogs alerted to them again and again. After 144 tries in all, only 21 resulted in the officer/dog team saying the room was “clean.” In other words, there was an 85% failure rate.
Under regular circumstances, when you are pulled over, for instance, an officer would either need to have your permission to search the car, a warrant, or probable cause that drugs were present. Probable cause means there needs to be clear indications of their presence, indications that would stand up in court.
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that a drug dog’s alert is sufficient to establish probable cause.
Anyone who works with animals or who has a highly trained dog themselves, knows just how malleable a dog’s behavior is based on his owner’s actions. Whether officers were deliberately influencing the dog’s actions or if the dogs were merely responding to some subconscious signals being given off by the handlers isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that the reliability of these dogs and their handlers must be held to the highest standard if they are allowed to establish probable cause by merely “alerting” to the presence of contraband.
The laws regarding when officers can search your vehicle or when they can use a drug dog vary slightly from state to state but all procedures and policies, no matter where you are, have to respect your constitutional rights.
If you are facing drug charges, you should know that many drug cases are eventually dismissed because the police came to the evidence in violation of the defendant’s rights. Contact us today to be put in touch with a defense attorney who understands the rules of evidence and their potential impact on your case.