K9 Searches: Dog Scents or Nonsense?

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The use of dogs, for law enforcement purposes, dates back to the mid-1800s. In America's dark past, dogs were used primarily to track down fugitive slaves and escaped prisoners. Near the end of the century, London police used bloodhounds in an effort to track and capture Jack the Ripper.

It wasn't until the early 1900s that dogs were first properly trained to fight crime. Dogs were then trained and used in military operations for both World Wars.

Today's K-9 units are found in law enforcement agencies at every level of government. They are best known for drug operations, but are also used to "sniff out" weapons, chemicals, and cadavers.

While we applaud the efforts of these wonderful animals and the job they do, recent events have placed K-9 units under scrutiny. The closer look is not necessarily aimed at the dogs, rather the manner in which they are used and how "hits" are being detected.

Recently, two Ohio residents were pulled over in Illinois for allegedly making an unsafe lane change. The traffic stop was recorded on dash cam and what is shown should be disturbing to any person who holds the 4th Amendment dear.

During the stop, the driver of the vehicle moved to the back of the vehicle and talked with the officer. The officer had already "run" the driver's information and a previous drug arrest was found. Though no conviction was shown, the officer, in our opinion, used this "information" to prolong the traffic stop while a requested K-9 unit arrived at the scene.

When the K-9 arrived, the dog was recorded walking around the vehicle with no hints of a "hit" anywhere on the vehicle. As the K-9 and its handler prepared to make another lap around the vehicle, they move out of camera view when they got to the front end of the vehicle.

While the camera cannot see them, the handler could be heard giving encouragement to the dog and a "hit" ensued.

The vehicle was searched, though the area in which the "hit" occurred was left alone. No drugs were found in the vehicle. Neither officer, during the search, bothered to open the hood of the car to look in the engine compartment; the area in which the dog "hit".

While the officers claim this was a legal stop, citing the lane violation and the allegation the freeway is used as a drug corridor, the overzealous reaction to incomplete information led to an unwarranted search of the vehicle.

The driver and passenger have filed litigation against the law enforcement agency in question.

Minor traffic violations are being used as a catalyst for K-9 searches. The stopping officer, at the first hint of a "nervous" driver or passenger, calls for a K-9 unit and the driver's nervous reaction is enough probable cause to send the dog around the car.

Common sense tells us a nervous driver does not necessarily equal probable cause to search. Common sense should also tell us searches, without probable cause, should be found to be against a person's 4th Amendment rights and any evidence gleaned should be ruled inadmissible.