Police departments in West Virginia and around the country use dogs that are trained to signal an alert when their keen senses of smell detect illegal drugs, explosives or firearms. The courts usually take it for granted that drug-sniffing dogs are impartial as long as police departments can establish that they have been properly trained, but a recent traffic stop in Texas might prompt judges to reconsider this assumption.
A routine traffic stop
The sequence of events began when a Bexar County Sheriff’s Office deputy pulled over a pickup truck on Interstate 35. A K9 unit was released to conduct what is called an air sniff around the vehicle when the Houston resident behind the wheel declined to give the deputy permission to conduct a search. The dog jumped up and touched one of the pickup truck’s doors to signal that drugs were present, which gave the deputy probable cause to conduct a warrantless search. No drugs were found, and all of the events were captured by the deputy’s body camera.
Body camera footage
The body camera footage revealed that the dog did not alert to the presence of drugs until the deputy made a gesture with his right hand. The pickup truck driver believes that the deputy’s hand movement was a signal to the K-9 unit. Bexar County has since compensated the man for the scratches that the police dog left on his vehicle. Events like these are the reason why experienced criminal defense attorneys may ask to see body camera footage before negotiating plea agreements in narcotics cases involving K9 units.
Unreasonable search and seizure
Police dogs are trained to detect even trace amounts of illegal drugs, and they are also trained to obey their handlers. Body cameras can protect police officers from unfounded allegations, and this case shows that they may also protect members of the public from unreasonable searches and seizures.