The use of drug dogs -- K-9 officers -- to smell illegal contraband has long been a tool in the cops’ arsenal to bypass the protections of the 4th Amendment and search citizens’ cars at a roadside traffic stop. Now damning testimony from an Illinois police officer details how some cops abuse that power to conduct policing for profit.
Collinsville, Illinois police officer Michael Reichert was being questioned on video by defense attorneys in the case of a man named Terrence Huff. Huff, a documentary filmmaker, was returning from a Star Trek Convention in St. Louis with a friend when Reichert pulled him over. Reichert claimed his K-9 alerted to the presence of drugs in the car. Huff and his friend were forced to sit on the side of the freeway while officers combed through his car, only to find no measurable quantity of drugs.
You can view the dash cam video of the stop here:
Huff was pulled over in what defense attorneys call a “forfeiture corridor.” These are sections of freeway throughout America targeted by cops who believe there is significant drug trafficking activity. Their aim is to profile the likely drug couriers and through civil asset forfeiture, seize the couriers’ cash, property and car to sell later at police auction for profit.
Huff wasn’t thrilled about having his 4th Amendment rights violated on the word of a dog eager to please a drug-seeking cop. He sued Reichert and it is in Reichert’s pre-trial deposition that the bombshell of drug evidence misconduct was revealed.
You can view Reichert’s testimony here:
In the video narrated by Huff, Reichert explains how he and fellow Collinsville cops would take marijuana from the evidence locker and plant it or smear it on unsuspecting innocent people’s vehicles. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“We’d go to a hotel or grocery store parking lots, throw (drugs) on U-Haul trucks ... underneath big trucks and 18-wheelers and so forth,” Reichert says, acknowledging that it was sometimes done without the vehicle owner’s permission. And sometimes, he said, marijuana was wiped across a car door. He said the dogs can detect the smell “for a time.”
It is bad enough that recent studies have shown that drug dogs are far from accurate instruments of science, they are “man’s best friend” eager to please their owner. In the journal Forensic Science International, researchers found that the best accuracy rate for a drug dog was for a room it had been familiarized with. In that case, 83 percent of the time the dog could accurately find marijuana, versus 10 percent of the time it would false alert. That’s right, if a cop brings a K-9 to your dorm room or home or office, there’s a one-in-10 chance it would alert to drugs you don’t have.
But the K-9 gets far worse results in real-world traffic stop scenarios. When run around the perimeter of a car to detect drugs, a K-9 is less than two-thirds (64 percent) accurate and will false alert 22 percent of the time. Yup, you could be traveling cross country with no drugs at all and you’ve got a better than one-in-five chance the dog will “alert” and leave you sitting on the roadside watching cops tear through all of your stuff. Worse, if the K-9 is brought into the interior of your car, a false alert is a better than one-in-three (36 percent) probability.
In some jurisdictions, police find a measurable quantity of drugs in fewer than half of the drug searches they performed due to a drug dog alerting. Cops will often explain that there must be “residue” from previous transportation of drugs that set the dog off. But when it is not residue that some Collinsville cop smeared on a car door, it is often the dog just trying to please its master.
In a 2011 study at UC Davis, researchers gathered 18 dog-and-handler teams. They were told to search four rooms in a church for the presence of drugs or explosives. They were also told that a red piece of construction paper taped to a cabinet meant there were drugs or explosives in the room. However, there were no drugs or explosives in any of the rooms; instead, researchers used sausages and tennis balls as lures for the dogs -- something a dog would be interested in, but shouldn’t be alerting for.
In the first room, there were no lures and no red paper. In the second room, there were lures, but no red paper. In the third room, there was red paper, but no lures. And in the fourth room, there were both lures and red paper. Now, there should have been no alerts in any rooms, since none of them contained any drugs or explosives. But, unsurprisingly, researchers found the dogs alerted in all of the rooms, and alerted more often in the rooms with the red paper rather than the sausages and tennis balls, indicating the dogs alerted based on their master’s anticipation of there being drugs or explosives in the room. A drug dog would rather please its handler than nibble on free sausage!
Besides being a tool to violate our 4th Amendment rights, I’ve never understood how the testimony of a drug dog isn’t a violation of our 6th Amendment rights. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … be confronted with the witnesses against him…” but how exactly do you confront the testimony of a dog? “Officer Fido, when you approached the car, were you trying to please your owner, Officer Reichert?” Woof, woof, bark, bark! “Your Honor, please instruct the witness to respond in English…”
Huff’s case against Reichert has been settled for $100,000. That represents about one-fifth of the annual forfeiture proceeds for the cops in Reichert’s county.
"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of The Russ Belville Show.