April 5, 1996 in Idaho

Take It From Me, Drug Detection Dogs Tell No Lies

Robert B. Hunt Special To Round

The papers have been filled with writers complaining about drug dog searches of cars in local high school parking lots. They bemoan the supposed trampling of their rights and snicker about the seemingly high error rate of the dogs. They are uninformed about drug dog capabilities.

My drug detection experience began with an assignment by the Navy to the U.S. Customs Service. We searched everything from airline passengers, baggage and aircraft to vehicles and mail. I often employed dogs to conduct searches.

Drug detection dogs are accurate tools. The dogs alerted on 65 of the 650 cars in the school parking lots. If there were 65 alerts, there were 65 “dirty” cars. Students often travel together, which means more than 65 students possibly are involved in illegal drug use.

Because the dogs alerted on those cars, drugs had been there in the very recent past. If measurable amounts of drugs were not found in the physical searches, it does not mean the vehicle owner was necessarily Mr. Clean or Mary Pureheart.

It simply means the searchers missed the residue. It may mean that all that was left was the smell absorbed into the upholstery and carpeting.

When I first worked with drug detection dogs, it wasn’t dog failure but human limitations that had to be overcome. We found that marijuana seeds and residue could be found in the sewn together area of pants and shirt pockets.

If officers who searched at the high schools had taken clothing found in a suspected car and turned the pockets inside out and then taken that material found in the seams and done a field drug test, they might have gotten positive results. The next best places to examine for residue would be the floor mats, plastic bags, envelopes, film containers, under the seats and in the glove compartment.

Because law enforcement agencies cannot afford the cost of false arrests, drug dogs are allowed to work only if they are certifiably accurate. The dogs were not confused by wind currents in the parking lot.

I have used dogs aboard ships that were rocking and rolling in the ocean, and with the deckplates vibrating from the pounding of the engine and the turning of the ship’s propellers. Even in these very trying conditions, a dog does not give false positives.

The reader may wonder by what authority we were searching property without the probable cause of an alert by the drug detecting dog. U.S. Customs is the one exception to the Fourth Amendment. Customs officers can examine anything and anyone crossing the border.

When crossing the border there is no expectation of privacy, nor is there any in a public place. A drug dog passing by a vehicle is not violating anyone’s rights. A trained drug dog alerting on a car constitutes probable cause that there are illegal drugs in that car.

It is another subject as to whether a teenager can be considered able to give intelligent and knowing consent to search a car. Teenagers are notoriously susceptible to peer pressure and not always mature enough to face authority figures in defending their right not to incriminate themselves.

One parent was understandably upset by all the scratches on his car. The scratches seemed to be caused by a dog. If the drug dogs did the damage, it is a case of sloppy dog handling. The parent or his insurance company should bill the city for repairs. If the city refuses, small claims court is simple, quick and inexpensive. The city will retrain its dogs and handlers after it pays for repainting a few cars.

This country’s laws are always evolving. Students received a practical demonstration of their constitutional rights in their own parking lot.

The parking lot searches should make discussions of the Bill of Rights much more interesting. About 650 citizens were subjected to a drug dog search. Some students said their rights had been violated.

Those who feel that way can rest assured that law enforcement and school authorities carefully researched legal precedent and case law before executing this search.

At first glance, the relatively small amount of drugs discovered would seem to indicate the school’s drug problem is negligible. Yet one car in 10 showed positive indications of illegal drugs. This means that there had recently been drugs in the car or that there were minute amounts of drug residue still there. Our civic leaders should be thanked for their responsible actions.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Robert B. Hunt Special to Roundtable

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