How Accurate Are the Dogs that Send You to Jail?

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Author: Jacob Sullum

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Robert J. Burns, a 55-year-old retired nurse who lives in St. Louis, was returning from a trip to the West Coast last October when his white Nissan pickup truck was pulled over on Interstate 40 near Amarillo.

Burns was carrying a 12-foot aluminum fishing boat on top of the truck, and he had been struggling against high winds that kept pushing him toward the shoulder. The sheriff’s deputy who stopped him thought he might be drunk.

“He asked me to step out and come back to his car,” Burns says, “and that’s when I noticed the dog in the back seat, a yellowish Lab. I explained that I hadn’t been drinking and my getting on the shoulder of the road was strictly from the wind. He said that he was going to write me a warning, and I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ He asked me if I had any drugs in the car. I said, ‘No, sir, I don’t do drugs, and I don’t associate with people who do.’ He asked me would I mind if he searched my vehicle, and I said, ‘Well, yes, I would mind if you searched my vehicle.’ ”

But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the deputy did not have to take no for an answer. In the 2005 caseIllinois v. Caballes, the Court declared that “the use of a well-trained narcotics-detection dog…during a lawful traffic stop generally does not implicate legitimate privacy interests.”

So the deputy was free to walk his dog around Burns’ truck. “He got out with this dog and went around the car, two or three times,” Burns says. “He came back and said the dog had ‘passively alerted’ on my vehicle.”

Burns, who is familiar with drug-detecting dogs from his work as an M.P. at Edwards Air Force Base in the 1970s, was puzzled. Properly trained police dogs are supposed to indicate the presence of drugs with a clear, objectively verifiable signal, such as sitting down in front of an odor’s source or scratching at it. Yet “the dog never sat down, the dog never scratched, the dog never did anything that would indicate to me that it thought there was something in there.”

The deputy and another officer who arrived during the stop nevertheless went through Burns’ truck for half an hour or so, reaching up into the boat, perusing his cargo, looking under the seats and the hood, examining the gas tank and the undercarriage. They found no trace of drugs, although they did come across the loaded pistol that Burns mentioned to them once it was clear they planned to search the truck.

“They were cool with the gun,” Burns says. “If it had been California, God knows what would have happened.” He was so relieved that he barely minded the delay and inconvenience, which stretched a brief traffic stop into more than an hour. “I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not a super-libertarian,”

Burns says. “Once I realized that the pistol was not going to be an issue, man, they could have spent all day going over that car and under that car. My only concern was that one of the guys might have slipped something in to cover up for the fact that they didn’t find anything.”

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