Police K-9s: Are they too eager to please?

On Behalf of | May 14, 2021 | Drug crimes

If you drive east of Atlanta for about an hour on Interstate 20, you’ll arrive in Greensboro. A recent routine traffic stop there began when a police officer noticed that a car with an out-of-state license plate had drifted across the interstate’s right fog line several times.

The Greene County Sheriff’s Office Deputy flipped his blue lights on.

Stop and search

The driver said the rented car had drifted while she tried to plug her phone in to recharge it. The 29-year-old said she and her 28-year-old female passenger were on their way from Oklahoma to North Carolina.

The deputy asked if there were weapons or drugs in the car. When told there were none, he asked if he could search the vehicle. His request was denied. He then asked if his K-9 could do an open-air walkaround sniff of the car. His request was again declined.

He called in another officer – who also had a K-9 – for assistance. The second officer and his dog then did a walkaround open-air sniff. The K-9 signaled the presence of drugs in the vehicle and a search turned up duffel bags stuffed with 78 pounds of marijuana.

The women were arrested and charged with trafficking marijuana.

Questions for the women to discuss with an attorney:

  • If the K-9 hadn’t done the walkaround of the women’s car, was there evidence that a crime had been committed?
  • Why was a walkaround done without getting consent – even though consent for a walkaround sniff had already been declined?

The women’s arrest was the kind of arrest that happens all over Georgia. It begins with a traffic stop, then a K-9 signals the presence of drugs in the vehicle and a search is conducted.

Loyal and eager to please

The trained dogs essentially serve as a sort of instant establishment of probable cause needed for a search of vehicles.

Unfortunately, not every signal by a K-9 unit is accurate. Because dogs are loyal and eager to please their handlers, there are cases of K-9 units giving false positives.

That can mean the person is detained, and sometimes arrested, while their vehicle is searched and impounded – all because officers believe the dogs are inerrant.

And the K-9, in turn, is simply trying to please its human companion, who sometimes gives unintentional cues with body language and tone of voice that indicate to the dog that the handler believes drugs are present and wants the dog to confirm the suspicion.

Taking cues

A decade ago, a University of California study showed that when handlers believe there are illegal drugs in a vehicle, the K-9 is much more likely to indicate the presence of narcotics.

Should the aforementioned women speak to a criminal defense attorney about the legality of the search of their vehicle? Of course. Everyone who’s been accused of violating the Georgia Controlled Substances Act should discuss the details of the search, arrest and evidence with a skilled professional who can protect their rights and freedom.