Omaha Drug Lawyer: Police K-9 Team Biases vs Science

As an experienced Omaha drug lawyer, Daniel Stockmann has worked with many clients who were arrested after a K-9 team found “probable cause” to search their vehicles. The problem is, K-9 searches are all too often totally unreliable, and scientists who speak out about the practice find their careers in a death knell. While one group seeks to end unlawful searches, law enforcement has, by and large, opted to sweep the real truth under the rug, directly violating our Fourth Amendment rights.

Police Need Probable Cause to Search

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In other words, unless an officer has reason to believe you committed a crime or that there’s evidence of a crime, he cannot search you, your vehicle, your home, or your belongings without your permission. A common example of genuine probable cause would include seeing evidence, such as drugs or drug paraphernalia in a vehicle when it’s pulled over at a stop. Gray areas of probable cause involve officer testimony, such as smelling marijuana, or observing signs of intoxication. If it’s later discovered that the individual had drugs or alcohol in his or her system, it’s rarely called into question whether the officer did or did not really observe what he said he did.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs are “Probable Cause on Four Legs”

Dogs used by law enforcement undergo rigorous training. They’re taught to detect specific scents and to “alert” their handler when a scent is detected. The dogs may be trained to smell people, drugs, explosives, or other compounds, and usually use a cue like sitting or barking at the source of the scent to let the handler know they’ve found something. This, in theory, is not against the law, nor is it a violation of one’s rights to have a dog do a quick sniff around a vehicle before police send a motorist on to his or her destination. The problem comes in when the handler, either accidentally or intentionally, causes the dog to alert in error, which then gives the officers “probable cause” to search the vehicle. For this reason, some officers will jokingly refer to K-9s as “probable cause on four legs,” because they understand the animals can be manipulated to provide any result the officers wish.

Proof of the Bias was “A Real Career-Ender” for the Whistle-Blowing Scientist

A few years ago, researcher Lisa Lit decided to study handler bias, and whether officers impacted K-9 alerts. Naturally, a scientific study requires that participants be “blind” to the true nature of the study, lest it impact the results, so officers with as many as 18 years of handling experience were told it was the animals under scrutiny. Moreover, the officers were told that there could be as many as three scents for the dogs to alert at in each of the four rooms involved in the study. In two of the rooms, officers were told that a red piece of paper would mark a scented spot. The dogs alerted more than 200 times in the study. The catch: nothing was scented. Every single instance a dog alerted was inaccurate; a false alert. Moreover, Lit discovered that the areas in which officers believed there should be a scent (those marked by red paper), the dogs were even more likely to give a false alert. While the information could have been used for further research or to improve the technique of handlers, Lit was ostracized. She now says the study was “a real career-ender,” and officers refused to work with her from that point on.

Few Agencies Are Willing to Implement Better Practices

“All [police departments] care about is how many cars you’re pulling over, how much money is being seized because your dog alerted,” Andy Falco, a former police K-9 handler turned dog trainer and expert witness told NPR. “They go, ‘It’s easy! All I gotta do is walk my dog around, and look for him to change his behavior slightly, and then we can go inside and sometimes we’ll find a million dollars and then we can seize it!’”

Fred Helfers, a retired police K-9 handler, doesn’t go so far as to suggest that law enforcement may be doing it intentionally. Helfers designed an alternative system for training and retesting dogs and handlers in an effort to end unintentional biases. When teams fail, he says it’s because officers expect to find something and don’t trust in the animal. “I think they ‘overworked’ the car. Instead of going around once or twice and trusting their dog and watching their dog work, maybe they’d seen something that wasn’t there,” he explained.  Unfortunately, few programs like Helfers’ exist, and most law enforcement agencies remain unwilling to take a hard look at their practices.

Contact an Experienced Omaha Drug Lawyer

The unfortunate truth is that, until law enforcement does reexamine these practices, K-9 teams will continue to make false alerts, resulting in searches that shouldn’t be happening, and violating the rights of citizens. If you or a loved one has been the victim of an unlawful search, and that search resulted in an arrest for drugs, you may be able to use this in a court of law to have the charges dismissed, but you will need the help of an experienced Omaha drug lawyer. Daniel Stockmann has been serving the region for nearly two decades and understands what it takes to build an effective defense strategy, whether it means following up on violations of constitutional rights or other avenues. To get a free consultation with Mr. Stockmann, call (844) 906-0641.