Louisville police’s drug-sniffing K-9s don’t find narcotics in nearly half their searches

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Louisville Metro Police Department bodycam footage of Tae-Ahn Lea during a stop on Aug. 9, 2018. Scott Utterback, Louisville Courier Journal

When Louisville police pulled over teenager Tae-Ahn Lea last August in a now infamous traffic stop, Officer Jeff McCauley announced that his dog Ripley had “alerted” to drugs inside the car.

That allowed police to search the vehicle, while Lea was handcuffed outside.

But police found no drugs. And a Courier Journal investigation found that is not unusual.

In nearly half of the traffic stops since 2017 in which drug dogs indicated the presence of narcotics inside a vehicle, none were found, according to a database of LMPD canine searches obtained under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

The department said that doesn’t mean the dogs were wrong; narratives of the stops show that sometimes drivers admitted they had smoked marijuana earlier or that it had been in the car.

In other words, dogs accurately smelled the scent of pot, even if it was no longer there.

But experts on policing and canines, including Dr. Lawrence Myers, an Auburn University professor of veterinary medicine who has studied detector dogs, said the data shows that “a lot of people are having their cars searched who shouldn’t, and that they are forced — like Lea — to endure invasive searches that can be frightening and humiliating.”

“If I get pulled over and searched, knowing there has never been any contraband in my car, I am going to be pretty ticked,” said Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee Police Department officer who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “It is a waste of time and resources” and “not a great a way to win the hearts and mind of public.”

Also: How a German shepherd named Aldo led to the Supreme Court setting a new law for K-9s

Many drug searches turn up little or nothing

It is difficult to determine precisely how often Louisville’s K-9 dogs alert to drugs when none are found, in part because canine handlers inconsistently record their search results.

For example, some marked searches that turned up only marijuana “shake” — stems and leftovers — as “narcotics found,” while others listed them as just the opposite.

In an analysis of 139 searches since Jan. 1, 2017, in which a dog indicated that drugs were present, 45% turned up no narcotics. 

About half of the searches that yielded drugs found only marijuana, mostly in small amounts, including single joints, partially smoked “roaches” (the remains of a joint or marijuana cigarette) or shake.

Other searches, however, conducted after so-called exterior sniffs of vehicles, turned up heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine. Fourteen found firearms.

Arrests were made after 42 searches, and a dozen drivers or passengers were charged with trafficking in controlled substances.

Although most of the drug caches found were small, on Aug. 3, 2018, a K-9 named Franklin jumped through an open window of a Nissan Frontier stopped at Interstate 65 at Interstate 265 and alerted to an odor on the rear floorboard, where police found 3 pounds of tar heroin, 2 pounds of crystal meth, 54 grams of fentanyl pills and a loaded handgun.

Nelson Acosta-Angulo and Juan Carlos Gonzalez-Estrada were both charged with enhanced aggravated trafficking, charges that are still pending.

Jessie Halladay, an LMPD spokeswoman, said even searches that find no drugs — she calls them “unproductive responses” — can be effective: Guns were found in half a dozen instances in which no narcotics were located, the database shows.

The latest: Black teen handcuffed after wide turn sues LMPD

Do courts give dogs too much credibility?

Canines alert to the presence of narcotic odors by barking, pointing, jerking their heads or wagging their tails.

A canine’s alert during an exterior sniff is important because it allows police to search a vehicle without obtaining a warrant.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2005 that the use of a “well-trained narcotics-detection dog … during a lawful traffic stop” does not violate the Fourth Amendment. The ruling came over the objection of dissenting Justice David Souter, who wrote that the “infallible dog … is a creature of legal fiction.”

The Courier Journal’s analysis of about two-dozen canine-handler teams found that one of them was nearly perfect — narcotics were found 10 of 11 times after the dog alerted — while drugs were found in only four of 14 searches triggered by another canine team.

But the high court ruled in a more recent case, in 2013, that a dog’s performance in the field is irrelevant as long as it is “certified” once a year by a bona fide canine organization based on reliability tests in a controlled setting.

“If the dog alerts to a car in which the officer finds no narcotics, the dog may not have made a mistake at all,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a unanimous decision. “The dog may have detected substances that were too well hidden or present in quantities too small for the officer to locate. Or the dog may have smelled the residual odor of drugs previously in the vehicle or on the driver’s person.”

Halladay said LMPD’s canines are certified annually and follow a rigorous protocol that requires at least 16 hours of training a month.

She noted that in least eight searches in which no drugs were found, the driver admitted either to having just smoked marijuana or to having drugs previously in the same location where the dog alerted.

Earlier: Feeling the heat, LMPD changes traffic stop rules

Dogs can be trained to ignore trace amounts of drugs

Some canine experts, though, including Andy Falco Jimenez, the author of “Drug Sniff Evidence” and a former handler for the Anaheim Police Department in California, said drug-sniffing dogs should be trained to avoid alerting to residual odors or trace amounts of narcotics.

Although some experts dispute that assertion, Steve Sloan, president of the California Narcotic Canine Association, agreed that dogs can be trained to alert only to odors above a certain threshold.

“Nobody wants to find minuscule amounts or residual odors,” said Sloan, a retired handler for the San Diego Police Department. “They want to find substantial amounts for which they can prosecute people.”

Some departments, though, don’t train dogs that way because they fear a canine will miss a particularly well-wrapped cache of narcotics, said Richard Ashabranner, a retired handler for the Jeffersonville, Indiana, police and president of the North American Police Work Dog Association.

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During Tae-Ahn Lea’s traffic stop in 2018, Louisville police officers brought out their K-9 to search his vehicle. LMPD body cam video, Louisville Courier Journal

The Louisville department recently changed its canine search procedures after the Courier Journal reported that some experts who viewed a video of Lea’s stop said they didn’t see the dog alert.

A lieutenant now must review body camera footage of every canine-initiated search — a change Halladay said is designed to provide more oversight to ensure dogs are being used appropriately during traffic stops.

She also said the department, after reviewing the data it provided the Courier Journal, discovered inconsistencies in how searches were recorded and is changing those procedures.

The news organization found that some stops, including those of Lea and Jamaj Johnson, were not recorded in the database. Johnson, a Ford assembly line worker, was stopped and searched after he failed to signal a turn. No narcotics were found.

Opinion: ‘When They See Us’ shows us why it’s hard for people to trust police

Handlers can subconsciously influence dogs

Dogs possess an extraordinary sense of smell. Research has found they are able to detect scents in concentrations as small as 1 part per trillion.

But they can make mistakes, Myers, the Auburn professor, said, either because they’re having a bad day or because they react to unconscious cues from their handlers. Leading a canine around a vehicle too many times or for too long can prompt dogs to indicate for drugs that aren’t there, he said.

Stoughton, the law professor, said a couple of studies have found that dogs are more likely to have “false-positive” alerts when they are searching the vehicle of a person of color.

“For complicated social reasons, not just inherent racism, an officer may be more likely to expect a black or Latino to have drugs in the car, and the dog may pick up on those cues,” he said.

In one study at the University of California, Davis, 18 dog-handler teams “erroneously alerted” 225 times after experimenters told handlers — falsely — that the scent of narcotics or explosive would be found in some of the rooms they searched.

Writing in the May 2011 issue of “Animal Cognition,” the authors said the experiment “confirms that handler beliefs affect the outcomes of scent detection dog deployments.”

Joe Gerth: LMPD’s new traffic stop policy is better, but still allows unequal policing

Studies of drug-sniffing dogs in the field have found varying success rates.

  • A Chicago Tribune analysis of searches by suburban Chicago departments found that only 44% of alerts led to the discovery of drugs or paraphernalia. For Hispanic drivers, the success rate was just 27%. The 2011 study looked at three years of searches.
  • The Huffington Post found in an analysis of an Illinois State Police K-9 unit in 2007-08 that 26% of the drug dog alerts resulted in police finding a measurable quantity of illicit drugs. Thirteen percent resulted in the recovery of more than 10 grams of marijuana, generally considered an amount for personal use, and only 10% turned up enough to charge the driver or a passenger with at least one felony.
  • In Australia, a 2011 government study of 14,102 searches in the state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, found nearly four in five that were based on canine alerts failed to turn up illicit substances.

“The question is whether the crime-fighting value” of such searches “outweighs the frustration and alienation to the citizens,” said University of North Carolina political science professor Frank Baumgartner, author of “Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us about Policing and Race.”

But courts have been extremely deferential to canine searches, according to Fourth Amendment scholars, including the late Andrew Taslitz, a law prosecutor who taught law at American and Howard universities.

In a law review article titled “Does the Cold Nose Know?” he wrote that courts “often accept the mythic dog with an almost superstitious faith.”

In the court of law, it seems, dogs truly are man’s best friend.

Read this: Stats don’t lie, black Louisville drivers get searched more often

Andrew Wolfson: 502-582-7189; awolfson@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @adwolfson.  Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/andreww.

Exterior sniff searches by the numbers

Jan. 1, 2017 to April 5, 2019, Louisville Metro Police Department

  • All narcotics searches: 1,107
  • All exterior sniffs: 335
  • All exterior sniffs of vehicles: 251
  • All exterior sniffs of vehicles in which a dog alerted: 139
  • Narcotics not found: 62 (45% of the 139 sniffs in which a dog alerted)
  • Narcotics found: 77 (55% of the 139 sniffs in which a dog alerted)
  • Only marijuana found: 39
  • Only single joints, “roaches” or “shake” found: 24
  • Firearms found: 14

Buster busts a passenger

  • Date: Feb. 4, 2017
  • Location: 1515 Algonquin Parkway
  • Canine team: John McKinley/Buster
  • Narrative: During an exterior sniff of a red Chevy truck, Buster alerted on the truck tailgate. A person sitting on the tailgate said he had a marijuana cigarette stuffed down his pants. Nothing else found.
  • Result: No citation or arrest

Bosco finds crystal meth

  • Date: Feb. 28, 2019
  • Location: 9300 block of Blue Lick Road
  • Canine team: John Kirk/Bosco
  • Narrative: Bosco walked past an open door, followed his nose into the vehicle and alerted on a backpack on the rear floorboard. Crystal meth, a scale and a firearm were found in the backpack.
  • Result: Courtney Minks charged with possession of a controlled substance, carrying a concealed deadly weapon and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Loki sniffs out a pot smoker

  • Date: Aug. 1, 2018
  • Location: North 26th Street and Rowan Street
  • Canine Team: Megan Ramos-Merrick/Loki
  • Narrative: Loki followed an odor of narcotics through an open passenger window and gave a final indication on the center console, where “flakes of suspected marijuana were visible.” The driver admitted his friend recently smoked pot in the vehicle.
  • Result: No citation or arrest

Rocky hits on some Tupperware

  • Date: Oct. 27, 2017
  • Location:  Taylor Boulevard and Central Avenue
  • Canine team: J.T. Keeling/Rocky
  • Narrative: Rocky entered the open driver’s window without prompting and indicated on an empty Tupperware container. Nothing was found.
  • Result: No citation or arrest

Maverick’s heroin bust turns up empty

  • Date: March 31, 2019
  • Location: Manslick Road and Pennacook Road
  • Canine team: John Benzing/Maverick
  • Narrative: Maverick alerted on the driver’s door. Once inside, the dog indicated again on a bundle of suspected heroin on the driver’s floor.
  • Result: No arrest

Torro’s sniffs out a joint and finds a gun

  • Date: April 4, 2019
  • Location: 1100 block of South Hancock Street
  • Canine team: Troy Best/Torro
  • Narrative: Torro jumped unprompted through the driver’s open window and showed changes of behavior at the center console. A small joint was found in the ashtray and “leftover shake” on floor. A stolen handgun was found in glove box.
  • Result: Sylvester T. Steele was charged with a convicted felon in possession of a handgun, possession of marijuana, expired tags and no insurance. Jeffery L. Acres was charged with receiving stolen property and marijuana possession

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