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Police dog ‘sniffed out’ drugs at every traffic stop – but officers only found narcotics in 29%

A drug sniffing police dog in Washington indicated narcotics were inside 100 percent of the vehicles it sniffed, but police found drugs in just 29 percent of them.

Karma, a K-9 with the since-dissolved Republic Police Department operating near Washington state‘s border with Canada, would give the signal to police officers that every vehicle he sniffed was carrying drugs.

The signal – Karma sitting down when his police handler pointed to a vehicle’s rear panel with the palm of their hand – would be given regardless of whether the driver possessed illegal narcotics or not. 

By doing so, Karma essentially gave officers probable cause to search and seize every vehicle he sniffed, undercutting constitutional guarantees of due process.

For the vehicle owners, this could prove costly, and on some occasions resulted in them spending nights in jail, despite being innocent.

Similar patterns have been found nationwide. A K-9 in Illinois alerted officers 93 percent of the time, but was wrong in more than 40 percent of cases. A drug detection dog in Florida gave false alerts 53 percent of the time.

Another dog, Brono in Virginia, incorrectly gave the indicator for the presence of drugs in 74 percent of vehicle sniffs.

A drug sniffing police dog in Washington state indicated narcotics were inside 100 percent of the vehicles it sniffed, even if nothing illegal was present. Pictured: Karma, the drug sniffing K-9 from the now-dissolved Republic Police Department

But despite the frequent errors made by drug sniffing dogs, courts typically treat certified narcotic dogs’ signals as infallible. This allows law enforcement agencies to use them as permission to enter vehicles and search through people’s belongings.

Some handlers even refer to their K-9 police dogs as ‘probable cause on four legs,’ according to CNN.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, demonstrated a financial motive for the practice in its 2020 report, titled Policing for Profit

It shows that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have collected more than $68.8 billion since 2000 through a process called civil forfeiture.

The money making scheme allows the government to seize and hold assets without a criminal conviction. The process often begins with a police search, which requires probable cause. A K-9 sniff often provides just that.

Clients of Institute for Justice all lost money because of the practice, and have had to fight to get it back after police dogs gave officers false alerts on their vehicles.

Karma, a K-9 with the since-dissolved Republic Police Department operating near Washington's border with Canada, would give the signal to police officers that every car he sniffed was carrying drugs

Karma, a K-9 with the since-dissolved Republic Police Department operating near Washington’s border with Canada, would give the signal to police officers that every car he sniffed was carrying drugs

In one case involving Karma, real estate agent Wendy Farris of Great Falls, Montana had her vehicle seized after she took a break during a 1,300 mile round-trip for her grandson’s birthday party after rescuing a friend from the streets in California.

Despite the long journey, Farris was determined to attend the party, but when she felt drowsy she parked in a safe place in Republic, where a Ferry County sheriff’s deputy found her asleep behind the wheel.

The deputy ordered her to take a sobriety test, but Farris – who had no prior arrests and doesn’t drink, and had not consumed any drugs or alcohol (which was later confirmed by a blood test) – was arrested under suspicion of driving while drunk.

The officer then called a K-9 unit, with the then-head of the police department Loren Culp bringing Karma, leading him on a leash twice around Farris’ vehicle. 

The dog gave the indication that there we drugs in the car, giving the deputy probable cause to impound the car, and Farris – knowing her car contained no alcohol, drugs, drug residue, paraphernalia, or weapons – was locked up.

Despite finding nothing other than $4,956 in cash in her car – which was also seized – officers held Farris over the weekend. She missed her grandson’s birthday party, and was given a bill for hygiene supplies in the jail, before being eventually released.

Republic now no longer has a police department, let alone a K-9 team, but the case of Karma and others has brought into question whether sniffer dogs should provide probable cause for officers to compound vehicles. Pictured: Republic Police Department

Republic now no longer has a police department, let alone a K-9 team, but the case of Karma and others has brought into question whether sniffer dogs should provide probable cause for officers to compound vehicles. Pictured: Republic Police Department

Top 10: Police forfeiture revenue by state from 2000 to 2019

New York: $18,214.10 million

Texas: $781.60 million

Illinois: $676.10 million

Arizona: $530.20 million

California: $440.00 million

Florida: $392.20 million

Pennsylvania: $279.40 million

Michigan: $252.20 million

Massachusetts: $191.70 million

New Jersey: $166.30 million

Data from: Policing for Profit, the Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture 

In other cases, Karma got lucky, with officer finding narcotics in people’s vehicles, but in others, officers had probable cause already but led the dog around the vehicles anyway, saying it proved his competence.

‘Once again Karma’s nose knows where the drugs are,’  Culp wrote in a Facebook post following a November 2018 stop in which narcotics were found. Culp also reported on Facebook that Karma had ‘zero misses’ in 2018 and 2019.

But the real test of Karma’s competence would have been to walk the K-9 around a car officers knew contained nothing, and ‘zero misses’ is an indicator of a problem.

‘In training if a dog is perfect and never misses, and never is recorded to make a mistake, then there are a couple of problems,’ law enforcement consultant Mary Cablk told CNN. ‘Either the training is not rigorous or the recordkeeping is bad.’

According to experts, false alerts from sniffer dogs can have nothing to do with a dog’s nose. Instead, it is likely they are giving the signal out of loyalty to their handlers.

‘The tendency of producing signals even when they detect nothing comes from the desire to please the human handler,’ Federico Rossano, who studies animal communication with humans at the University of California, San Diego, told CNN.

Now, Republic no longer has a police department, let alone a K-9 team, but the case of Karma and others has brought into question whether sniffer dogs should provide probable cause for officers to compound vehicles. 

According to data from the Policing for Profit report, between 2000 and 2019, law enforcement agencies have collected more than $68.8 billion through civil forfeiture.

‘Civil forfeiture allows police to seize property on the mere suspicion that it is involved in criminal activity. Prosecutors can then forfeit, or permanently keep, the property without ever charging its owner with a crime,’ the report says.

Of the 44 states which shared their data with researchers, New York collected the most revenue through the practice by around 23 times that of second place Texas.

Pictured: A map showing forfeiture revenue by state, and Federal agencies on the right New York raked in more than a staggering $18.2 billion in forfeiture revenue. By contrast, Texas collected $781.60 million. Of the top ten states, New Jersey was the lowest with $166.3 million

Pictured: A map showing forfeiture revenue by state, and Federal agencies on the right New York raked in more than a staggering $18.2 billion in forfeiture revenue. By contrast, Texas collected $781.60 million. Of the top ten states, New Jersey was the lowest with $166.3 million

Pictured: A map showing states sized based on their 2018 forfeiture revenue per 100 people

Pictured: A map showing states sized based on their 2018 forfeiture revenue per 100 people

New York raked in more than a staggering $18.2 billion in forfeiture revenue. By contrast, Texas collected $781.60 million. Of the top ten states, New Jersey was the lowest with $166.3 million. 

At a federal level, the report states that the Department of Justice made $30.8 billion in revenue, while the Department of the Treasury brought in $14.9 billion.

The report says that through the revenue brought in by civil forfeiture, police spending is more difficult to control through oversight. 

Pictured: A graphic showing the median currency forfeitures by sate, with the conservative estimated for the attorney costs higher than the median amount forfeited

Pictured: A graphic showing the median currency forfeitures by sate, with the conservative estimated for the attorney costs higher than the median amount forfeited

Pictured: A graphic showing states ranked by the protection they offer from civil forfeiture

Pictured: A graphic showing states ranked by the protection they offer from civil forfeiture

‘Forfeiture also poses a separation of powers concern. In allowing agencies to self-fund outside the normal appropriations process and with little oversight, it undermines legislatures’ power of the purse and invites questionable expenditures, such as $70,000 for a muscle car in Georgia, 11 $250,000 for lavish travel and meals in New York, 12 and $300,000 for an armored vehicle in Iowa,’ the report states. 

The report also says that data suggests that due to civil forfeiture amounts being relatively low, forfeiture often does not target big-time criminals, and that it often makes very little financial sense for property owners to hire legal help for their case.

The cost of hiring an attorney is often greater than the value of the property that has been forfeited, leading to many to abandon their property as a lost cause.


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