Probable Paws

This year saw an unprecedented show of force at Burning Man by “The Man”. Federal and local cops teamed up. Sniffer dogs were brought in from the US/Mexico border, people were intercepted as far away as Southern California and had their careers ruined without a trial, and DPW volunteers were harassed before the event even began.

People had their vehicles searched for minor infractions like bicycles obstructing the view of the license plate. This often led to a K-9 search, whether through consent or otherwise. All it takes is for a dog to indicate suspicion, for the police to have probable cause to violate your Fourth Amendment rights search your vehicle.

sniffer_dog_cartoonHow does the dog know? Was it really drugs it smelled, or the half-eaten Carl’s Junior in the back? The whole thing stinks to high heaven. Luckily for Burners, we’re not the only ones who think so. A challenge is being mounted in Nevada courts about the legality and effectiveness of sniffer dogs – by members of the police. Glad to hear there are still some good guys out there who take their vow to “Protect and Serve” the citizens seriously.

From Lawrence Mower (Lawn Mower?), Brian Haynes and Ed Vogel at the Las Vegas Review Journal:

In 2010, a team of researchers at the University of California, Davis set out to test the reliability of drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs.
The team assembled 18 police dogs and their handlers and gave them a routine task: go through a room and sniff out the drugs and explosives.
But there was a twist. The room was clean. No drugs, no explosives. In order to pass the test, the handlers and their dogs had to go through the room and detect nothing. But of 144 runs, that happened only 21 times, for a failure rate of 85 percent.
Although drug-sniffing dogs are supposed to find drugs on their own, the researchers concluded that they were influenced by their handlers, and that’s what led to such a high failure rate.
The reliability of drug dogs and their handlers is at the heart of a lawsuit filed in state district court by two Nevada Highway Patrol K-9 troopers and a consultant, who claim that the Metropolitan Police Department’s police dogs, and eventually NHP’s own dogs, were “trick ponies” that responded to their handlers’ cues, and therefore routinely violated citizens’ rights to lawful search under the Fourth Amendment.
The lawsuit goes on to make a number of other accusations in its 104-page complaint: that the Metropolitan Police Department is a racketeering organization, that money seized by motorists was misappropriated by the Department of Public Safety, that the two troopers were subjected to harassment and intimidation by their agency.
But what has defense attorneys and civil advocates taking notice are the allegations of illegal searches, which could call into question the seizure of millions of dollars from motorists on Nevada highways and jeopardize an untold number of criminal cases stemming from those stops.
Washoe County Public Defender Jeremy Bosler said the lawsuit’s allegations are “definitely an issue of concern throughout the state.”…
…The U.S. Supreme Court has given police “probable cause” to search your vehicle if a police dog detects drugs, typically by sitting, digging or barking. That is an extraordinary power – officers working without dogs need “a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime” for such searches. Mere suspicion is not enough, and criminal cases resulting from searches that don’t meet the “probable cause” standard can be, and are, tossed out in court.
Is the dog trained to find the drugs, or just to give “indications of suspicion” to those their handlers are suspicious of? Well, the dog can’t speak…just sniff. So we can never know. It sure sounds like a scam to me, and it sounds like these officers believe that too.
sniffer dog cartoon 2Not to mention that this type of work is incredibly difficult and cruel to the dogs, who are forced into a life of drug abuse and addiction just to prosecute these victimless crimes. Their thousands of times heightened sense of smell means the effects of them detecting hundreds of drugs a day are much more than if the humans were snorting sniffing them.
The troopers’ lawsuit also claims that the troopers witnessed Las Vegas police handlers abusing their dogs.
“In certain incidents they resort to hanging and then kicking the dog to get it to release,” the lawsuit states. “Trooper Moonin has personally witnessed a Metro handler take his dog behind a car after missing a significant drug seizure and brutally kick his dog repeatedly.” The abuses – of the dogs and the law – are a result of poor training by Las Vegas police, according to the lawsuit. 
If the dogs find anything, they get rewarded. So of course they want to pretend they found something:
Las Vegas police trained their dogs to be “trick ponies” that would respond to handlers’ cues when searching for drugs. That caused the dogs to become more interested in getting treats or toys when searching for drugs, they claim. The Highway Patrol dogs, on the other hand, were not rewarded when they signaled for drugs.
You would think that a challenge so significant to the rights granted by the Constitution of the United States would have a strong scientific backing. Instead, there is a dearth of supportive science from field use of this canine technology.
75183565-sniffer-dogsDespite the wide legal latitude police dogs are given, there are few studies showing how success­ful, or un­successful, they are at finding drugs in the field. But what does exist casts doubt on their reliability. About a month after the results of the UC Davis experiment were released, the Chicago Tribune published a study looking into three years of drug searches by suburban Illinois police departments. The study revealed that when dogs “alerted” officers to drugs, they were right 44 percent of the time. For Hispanic drivers, the rate was only 27 percent. 
Police told the Tribune that when drugs weren’t found, the dogs were detecting drug residue that was left in the vehicles. But that explanation is bogus, according to Lawrence Myers, an Auburn University professor who has studied police dogs for 30 years. While residual odors can cause false alerts, Myers said, too many dog handlers often use it as an excuse, making it all but impossible to assess accurately the reliability of the dog’s nose or the validity of a search.
“Frankly, many times it’s a search warrant on a leash,” Myers said of the drug-sniffing police dog.
Even if the dogs don’t find any drugs, the citizens can still face a world of hurt:
sniffer dog assWhen police dogs signal for drugs, there can be con­sequences even when no drugs are found. Police can seize money they find in the car if they believe the money has ties to drugs. The legal standard is weak, lawyers say, and citizens who want their money back have to go through the court system, which can be costly. They often cite the 2009 case of a 22-year-old Indiana man pulled over for an unsafe lane change on an Indiana interstate.  The man, who had won $50,000 from a car accident settle­ment, was found with $17,500 that he later claimed was for the purchase of a new car for his aunt. A drug dog alerted to drugs in his car – twice – and police seized his money. No drugs were ever found, and Indiana authorities held his money for more than a year.
If you were involved in a K-9 incident related to Burning Man, you might want to make sure that your lawyer knows about this challenge, and the UC Davis and other studies. Even if the officers involved are disgruntled with the department they accuse as corrupt (in Nevada? Surely not! Everything in Vegas is legit, it wasn’t founded by mobsters or anything)… the idea that an animal is communicating accurately with humans beyond any reasonable doubt, and not influenced by training seems ludicrous to me. Even more frightening is the idea that they could find no drugs, but take your money/property anyway.
We will see in 2014 if Burning Man’s recent attempted deal with Pershing County means the cops will back off on the sniffer dogs and leave us free to burn in peace in this remote, isolated wilderness, our Temporary Autonomous Zone that is unavailable to passers-by and innocent “civilians”. Is the crime of one Burner with a joint worse for society, than the crime of police manipulating the justice system for their own ends? Why are Burners being locked up, while Wall Street crooks walk free?

10 comments on “Probable Paws

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  7. The problem with these challenges is that they generally can’t stop the police level searching, and subsequent arrest and charges. The only time a typical defendant has an opportunity to challenge these procedures is during a suppression motion, if their lawyer brings one. This depends on the lawyer, his or her skills and, often, the client’s amount of money. Then the judges routinely deny even valid suppression motions (which are almost never granted statistically because many years of court decisions have seriously eroded the so-called “exclusionary rule.” Judges know that most people can’t afford to take pre-trial writs to overturn erroneously denied suppression motions, and subsequently, their lawyers will enter a deal, which often contains a waiver of appellate rights. The judicial system is a sad maze of blind turns and dead ends. I’m a defense attorney and this is too complicated a subject for this short note. The best defense is fore-knowledge of how to assert your rights. Of course the cops will ignore them, but it will give you the best chance for suppression after you’re charged.

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    • It appears that LE can, at random, use a dog to justify a search, and at least confiscate any cash they can find, even if no contraband is found. Or worse, they can “find” something that was not there.

      The simple solution is to not get in their cross-hairs. I figure avoiding the State of Nevada in late August/early September is an effective plan. I’ll just wait for the DVD.

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  8. Don’t know about you, dear reader, but I can hardly wait until I get a chance to see if the BOrg will pick me for the 2014 privilege of giving them $400 to camp on the desert, use their port-a-potties, and get a “free” bowl of their stone soup. And since nothing has changed since 2013 – same location, same locals, same LE – it can only be like last time! Gawd I hope they don’t decide to hold the Burn someplace else!! Imagine the confusion to all of us Burners (wherever will we camp?, where are the port-a-potties?), not to mention the locals and LE who have had decades to refine their game for the BRC venue. That would be totally unfair to them. After all, who would expect an event based on rebirth not to do exactly the same thing every year?

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