Posts Tagged ‘drug-sniffing dogs’

In a devastating ruling handed down in Maryland v. King, a divided U.S. Supreme Court has approved the practice by police of forcefully obtaining DNA samples from individuals arrested for serious crimes, even though they are presumed innocent, without first obtaining a search warrant.

Any American who thinks they’re safe from the threat of DNA sampling, blood draws, and roadside strip and/or rectal or vaginal searches simply because they’ve ‘done nothing wrong,’ needs to wake up to the new reality in which we’re now living. As the Supreme Court’s ruling in Maryland v. King shows, the mindset of those in the highest seats of power—serving on the courts, in the White House, in Congress—is a utilitarian one that has little regard for the Constitution, let alone the Fourth Amendment. Like Justice Scalia, all I can hope is that “today’s incursion upon the Fourth Amendment” will someday be repudiated.

As Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the dissent, points out, the Court’s ruling succeeds only in burdening “the sole group for whom the Fourth Amendment’s protections ought to be most jealously guarded: people who are innocent of the State’s accusations.” Moreover, if such a dubious practice were to prevail simply for the sake of “solving more crimes,” as Scalia suggests, it would not take much to justify the “taking of DNA samples from anyone who flies on an airplane (surely the Transportation Security Administration needs to know the “identity” of the flying public), applies for a driver’s license, or attends a public school.”

In 2009, Maryland police arrested Alonzo Jay King Jr. on charges of assault. Relying on a state law which authorizes DNA collection from people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime, police carried out a cheek swab on King to obtain his DNA profile without first procuring a warrant. The DNA sample was then matched up against a database which identified him as having allegedly been involved in a 2003 rape. King was then convicted of the 2003 crime. On appeal, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in April 2012 that the state law violated the Fourth Amendment. In an unusual move, in July 2012, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts issued a stay of the lower court’s ruling, prior to the Court’s even agreeing to hear the case, using the rationale that collecting DNA from people accused of serious crimes is “an important feature of day-to-day law enforcement practice in approximately half the states and the federal government.”

In agreeing to hear the case, the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the Fourth Amendment allowed law enforcement officials to collect DNA from people who have merely been arrested and so are presumed innocent. Yet  the Court’s subsequent 5-4 ruling which equates forcefully obtaining a DNA sample to “fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” further guts an already severely disemboweled Fourth Amendment. Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito affirmed the practice of warrantless DNA grabs by the police. Issuing a strongly worded dissent were Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Maryland v. King is available at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-207_d18e.pdf.

For more on these issues, read my new book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State which paints a chilling portrait of a nation in the final stages of transformation into a police state, complete with surveillance cameras, drug-sniffing dogs, SWAT team raids, roadside strip searches, blood draws at DUI checkpoints, mosquito drones, tasers, privatized prisons, GPS tracking devices, zero tolerance policies, overcriminalization, and free speech zones.

“This is the problem when police officers and police departments have a financial interest in doing their job. We got rid of bounty hunters because they were not a good thing. This is modern day bounty hunting.”—Public Defender John Rekowski

Long before Americans charted their revolutionary course in pursuit of happiness, it was “life, liberty, and property” which constituted the golden triad of essential rights that the government was charged with respecting and protecting. To the colonists, smarting from mistreatment at the hands of the British crown, protecting their property from governmental abuse was just as critical as preserving their lives and liberties. As the colonists understood, if the government can arbitrarily take away your property, you have no true rights. You’re nothing more than a serf or a slave.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was born of this need to safeguard against any attempt by the government to unlawfully deprive a citizen of the right to life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Little could our ancestral forebears have imagined that it would take less than three centuries of so-called “independence” to once again render us brow-beaten subjects in bondage to an overlord bent on depriving us of our most inalienable and fundamental rights.

The latest governmental scheme to deprive Americans of their liberties—namely, the right to property—is being carried out under the guise of civil asset forfeiture, a government practice wherein government agents (usually the police) seize private property they “suspect” may be connected to criminal activity. Then—and here’s the kicker—whether or not any crime is actually proven to have taken place, the government keeps the citizen’s property, often divvying it up with the local police who did the initial seizure.

For example, the federal government recently attempted to confiscate Russell Caswell’s family-owned Tewksbury, Massachusetts, motel, insisting that because a small percentage of the motel’s guests had been arrested for drug crimes—15 out of 200,000 visitors in a 14-year span—the motel was a dangerous property. As Reason reports:

This cruel surprise was engineered by Vincent Kelley, a forfeiture specialist at the Drug Enforcement Administration who read about the Motel Caswell in a news report and found that the property, which the Caswells own free and clear, had an assessed value of $1.3 million. So Kelley approached the Tewksbury Police Department with an “equitable sharing” deal: The feds would seize the property and sell it, and the cops would get up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

Thankfully, with the help of a federal judge, Caswell managed to keep his motel out of the government’s clutches, but others are not so fortunate. One couple in Anaheim, Calif., is presently battling to retain ownership of their $1.5 million office building after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration filed an asset-forfeiture lawsuit against them because one of their tenants allegedly sold $37 in medical marijuana to an undercover agent.

Some states are actually considering expanding the use of asset forfeiture laws to include petty misdemeanors. This would mean that property could be seized in cases of minor crimes such as harassment, possession of small amounts of marijuana, and trespassing in a public park after dark.

As the Institute for Justice points out:

Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today.  Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize your car or other property, sell it and use the proceeds to fund agency budgets—all without so much as charging you with a crime.  Unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture, owners need not be charged with or convicted of a crime to lose homes, cars, cash or other property.

Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head.  With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.

Relying on the topsy-turvy legal theory that one’s property can not only be guilty of a crime but is guilty until proven innocent, government agencies have eagerly cashed in on this revenue scheme, often under the pretext of the War on Drugs. By asserting that someone’s personal property, a building or a large of amount of cash for example, is tied to an illegal activity, the government—usually, the police—then confiscates the property for its own uses, and it’s up to the property owner to jump through a series of legal hoops to prove that the property was obtained legally.

Despite the fact that 80 percent of these asset forfeiture cases result in no charge against the property owner, challenging these “takings” in court can cost the owner more than the value of the confiscated property itself. As a result, most property owners either give up the fight or chalk the confiscation up to government corruption, leaving the police and other government officials to reap the benefits. For example, under a federal equitable sharing program, police turn cases over to federal agents who process seizures and then return 80% of the proceeds to the police.

Asset forfeitures can certainly be lucrative for cash-strapped agencies and states. In the fiscal year ending September 2012, the federal government seized $4.2 billion in assets, a dramatic increase from the $1.7 billion seized the year before. Between 2004 and 2008, police in Jim Wells County, Texas seized over $1.5 million. The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. collected $358,000 from civil forfeiture in fiscal year 2011, and $529,000 from federal equitable sharing. The State Attorney’s Office in Madison County, Illinois, made $500,000 from asset forfeiture over the course of eight years.

Often, these governmental property grabs take the form of highway robbery (literally), where police officers extract money, jewelry, and other property from unsuspecting motorists during routine traffic stops. As Mother Jones quips, “forfeiture corridors are the new speed traps.” Indeed, states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Indiana are among the worst offenders. Mother Jones continues:

You all know what a speed trap is, right? If you have a highway running through your small town, you can make a lot of money by ticketing out-of-state drivers who are going one or two miles per hour over the speed limit. How many victims are going to waste time trying to fight it, after all? But have you heard about “forfeiture corridors”? That’s a little different — and quite a bit more lucrative. All you have to do is pull over an out-of-state driver for supposedly making an unsafe lane change, have your police dog sniff around for a bit of marijuana residue, and then use civil asset forfeiture laws to impound any cash you might find. Apparently it’s especially popular on highways leading into and out of casino towns.

In typical fashion, these police traps tend to prey on minorities and the poor, as well as undocumented immigrants and individuals who happen to have large amounts of cash on hand, even for lawful reasons. One such person is Jerome Chennault, who fell prey to Madison County, Illinois’ forfeiture corridor in September 2010. En route to Nevada after a visit with his son, Chennault was pulled over by police for allegedly following another car too closely. When police asked to sweep Chennault’s car with a drug dog, Chennault obliged, believing that he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide and completely unaware that he had fallen into a forfeiture trap.

During the search, the drug dog alerted on a black bag in the back seat of the car which contained about $22,000 in cash. The money, Chennault explained, was intended for a down payment on a home.  The dog did not find any drugs in the car, nor was there any evidence of criminal activity. However, instead of letting Chennault go on his way with a traffic citation, the police confiscated the cash, claiming that since the drug dog alerted to it, it must have been used in the commission of a drug crime. Chennault challenged the seizure in court, after months spent traveling to and from Illinois on his own dime, and eventually succeeded in having his money returned, although the state refused to compensate him for his legal and travel expenses.

Tenaha, Texas, is a particular hotbed of highway forfeiture activity, so much so that police officers keep pre-signed, pre-notarized documents on hand so they can fill in what property they are seizing. Between 2006 and 2008, for instance, Tenaha police seized roughly $3 million.

As Roderick Daniels discovered, it doesn’t take much to get pulled over in a forfeiture corridor like Tenaha’s. Daniels was stopped in October 2007 for allegedly traveling 37 mph in a 35 mph zone. He was ordered to hand over his jewelry and the $8,500 in cash he had with him to purchase a new car. When he resisted, he was taken to jail, threatened with money-laundering charges and “persuaded” to sign a waiver forfeiting his property in order to avoid the charges.

In an even more egregious case, Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson, an interracial couple travelling through Tenaha, were forced to forfeit the $6,000 cash they had with them to buy another car when police threatened to turn their young children over to Child Protective Services. Another traveler, Maryland resident Amanee Busbee, was also threatened with losing her child to CPS after police stopped her, her fiancé and his business partner when they were en route to Houston with $50,000 to complete the purchase of a restaurant. Boatright and Busbee were eventually able to reclaim their money after mounting legal challenges.

Comparing police forfeiture operations to criminal shakedowns, journalist Radley Balko paints a picture of a government so corrupt as to render the Constitution null and void:

Police in some jurisdictions have run forfeiture operations that would be difficult to distinguish from criminal shakedowns. Police can pull motorists over, find some amount of cash or other property of value, claim some vague connection to illegal drug activity and then present the motorists with a choice: If they hand over the property, they can be on their way. Otherwise, they face arrest, seizure of property, a drug charge, a probable night in jail, the hassle of multiple return trips to the state or city where they were pulled over, and the cost of hiring a lawyer to fight both the seizure and the criminal charge. It isn’t hard to see why even an innocent motorist would opt to simply hand over the cash and move on.

In an age in which the actions of the police—militarized extensions of the government—are repeatedly sanctioned by the legislatures and the courts, hard-won concessions such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Florida v. Jardines that the use of drug-sniffing dogs to carry out warrantless searches of homes is unconstitutional comes as little comfort. After all, it was not long ago that this very same court sanctioned the use of drug-sniffing dogs in roadside stops, a practice that has proven extremely profitable for law enforcement officials tasked with policing the nation’s forfeiture corridors. — John W. Whitehead

Walking a narrow line, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in Florida v. Jardines that the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of homes is unconstitutional.

In keeping with the Court’s recent decision in Florida v. Harris, in which the justices ruled unanimously that police may use drug dogs to conduct warrantless searches during traffic stops, the Court did not address the question of whether a drug dog’s sniff constitutes a violation of one’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Instead, the Court ruled that an officer bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the front of a home without a warrant constitutes an unconstitutional invasion of private property.

In an age in which the police can probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts, it’s difficult to really celebrate this ruling given that it basically just gives a head nod to the Fourth Amendment. What we are experiencing today is a slow death by a thousand cuts, only it’s the Fourth Amendment being inexorably bled to death. It remains to be seen whether today’s ruling by the Supreme Court proves to be little more than a band-aid fix to a rapidly worsening condition.

Florida v. Jardines arose out of an incident that took place in November 2006, when Miami police responded to an “anonymous” tip that marijuana was being grown at the residence of Joelis Jardines. After police surveillance of the Jardines home failed to reveal any incriminating evidence, the police brought in a drug-sniffing dog and handler to inspect the property at 7:30 a.m. The police handler walked the dog up to the front door on a leash and the dog allegedly “alerted” to the scent of contraband, which was reported to the investigating police who also approached the door and allegedly smelled marijuana. Using this information, the police obtained a warrant to search the Jardines residence, resulting in the seizure of marijuana plants.

In court, Jardines’ lawyer moved to suppress the evidence obtained under the warrant, insisting that the warrant itself was invalid because of its reliance on the alert by the drug-sniffing dog. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the use of detection dogs at private residences raises significant privacy concerns. The U.S. Supreme Court, having ruled in previous cases that dog sniffs do not constitute “searches” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, agreed to review the state court decision.

In weighing in on the matter, The Rutherford Institute had asked the Supreme Court to declare the warrantless use of drug-sniffing dogs in both scenarios, searches of homes and vehicles, to be unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. In an amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Florida v. Jardines, Institute attorneys cited mounting empirical evidence that narcotics detection dogs are unreliable and inaccurate, pointing out that both anecdotal evidence and research show that dogs frequently signal false alerts and show sensitivity to handler bias. Institute attorneys also pointed out that the amount of time it takes for the dogs to carry out a detection sniff on the perimeter of a private residence constitutes a trespass under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

The Court ruled unanimously in a similar case, Florida v. Harris, that police officers may use drug-sniffing dogs to conduct warrantless searches of cars during routine traffic stops. — John W. Whitehead

Talk about freedom going to the dogs…

In a 9-0 decision in Florida v. Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that police may use drug-sniffing dogs to carry out warrantless searches during routine traffic stops, despite the fact that published scientific studies show that drug dog alerts are wrong as much as 56% of the time, and are heavily influenced by the biases of the dog’s handler.

This ruling undercuts the entire basis of the Fourth Amendment, which was designed to protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures. When dog sniffs, which have proven to be unreliable, are considered probable cause for police to search your property without a warrant—whether it’s your home, your car or your person—then none of our rights are secure.

As CBS News points out, “The irony in this case, Florida v. Harris, is that the trained narcotics dog (named Aldo) did not find the drugs he was trained to find when he prompted an officer to search Clayton Harris’ truck.”

The case began in June 2006, when a Florida county sheriff stopped a vehicle driven by Clayton Harris for an expired license tag. When Harris refused the sheriff’s request for consent to search his vehicle, a drug-detection dog was deployed and conducted a “free air sniff” of the exterior of the vehicle. When the dog alerted to the door handle on the driver’s side, the officer conducted a warrantless search of the interior of the vehicle. Although the search didn’t turn up anything the dog was trained to find, the officer reportedly found pseudoephedrine and materials used for making methamphetamine.

Harris was arrested and charged.

Two months later, Harris was once again pulled over in his vehicle by the same police officer and drug-sniffing dog. Once again the dog “alerted,” and once again the search failed to turn up anything for which the dog was trained to find. Only this time, nothing of interest was found whatsoever.

In court, Harris’ attorneys moved to suppress the evidence found as a result of the search of his vehicle, asserting that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The Florida Supreme Court granted the motion on appeal, however, ruling that the state’s claim that the dog was trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish the dog’s reliability for purposes of determining probable cause. The court held that the state has the burden of showing the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the dog was reliable by presenting evidence on matters such as training field performance records.

In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling, The Rutherford Institute documented empirical research showing dog alerts are not inherently reliable. One recent study at the University of California—Davis, showed that in a test where handlers were told drugs might be found at the test site, but no drugs were present, dogs gave false positive alerts an astonishing 85% of the time. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on a related case, Florida v. Jardines, which challenges the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of private homes. The Rutherford Institute also filed an amicus brief in Florida v. Jardines. — John W. Whitehead