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Lawsuit Alleges Drug Sniffing Dogs are Tainted by Their Handlers

Two current Nevada Highway K-9 Troopers and a retired police sergeant are suing the Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) for racketeering. Specifically, the complaint alleges that that the NHP’s drug sniffing dogs are “trick ponies” that sniff out drugs based on their handlers’ cues, and such cues taint the drug search and thus violate a citizen’s right to a lawful search under the Fourth Amendment. Since the LVMPD and NHP officers need “a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime” to perform a search and any subsequent seizure, using a drug sniffing dog to supplant that reasonable belief can only be allowed if the drug sniffing dogs are reliable. If the complaint is successful, the seizure of millions of dollars from motorists within the state of Nevada who were stopped and found to possess drugs could be in jeopardy, as well as a number of criminal cases which stemmed from these stops.

The NHP’s K-9 program was set up in 2008. In the program’s first year, the dogs aided in the seizure of more than $5 million in cash, over 1 thousand pounds of marijuana, and pounds of cocaine and methamphetamine. The plaintiffs, however, claim their video proof of handlers “cueing” their dogs, which has been posted on YouTube, questions the reliability of these seizures. The plaintiffs also point to two drug sniffing dog studies which show the potential of the dog’s unreliability.

In 2010, UC Davis studied 18 drug sniffing police dogs and their handlers. The drug sniffing dogs failed 85% of the time. A month after the UC David study, the Chicago Tribune published a three year study of drug searches by drug sniffing dogs. According to the study, which covered suburban Illinois police departments, drug sniffing dogs correctly detected the presence or absence of drugs 44% of the time. That percentage dropped to 27% where the driver being searched was Hispanic.

For seven years, courts have relied upon Illinois v. Caballes, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that a search based upon a dog sniff does not violate the Fourth Amendment where the dog is well trained and “does not expose noncontraband items that otherwise would remain hidden from public view.” However, with the high court’s recent grant of cert to the State of Florida in Florida v. Harris, which questions exactly what evidentiary foundation is needed to show that an alert by a narcotics-detection dog provides an officer a reliable basis for probable cause to search a vehicle and thus not violate the Fourth Amendment, is now up for review.

The Las Vegas law office of Lagomarsino Law did not represent anyone involved in any cases that may be referenced above. This commentary is for educational purposes. If you would like to be represented by an attorney in our Las Vegas office, contact our office for a free confidential case review and receive a response within 24 hours. Call Toll Free 866-414-0400.