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Monthly Archive


MONTHY NEWSLETTER - August / September 2011

The Rise of the 'Sophisticated' Police-Dog Sniff

The battle over $38,480 seized from Bradford Nalou pitted the word of the Detroit-area businessman against the nose of Bruno, a Nebraska police dog.

In May 2009, the Nebraska State Patrol pulled over Mr. Nalou for speeding. A search of his car found the cash, which Mr. Nalou said was legitimately earned from his family-owned liquor store and money-transfer business. He was carrying it for a possible Las Vegas gambling trip, he said.

However, when Bruno was brought in to sniff the cash, the dog "alerted" to the taint of illegal drugs, federal authorities say. The police seized the money as being connected to a crime.

Seizures like these occur routinely on the nation's highways as part of the war on drugs, say forfeiture attorneys and law-enforcement officials. In many cases, such as Mr. Nalou's, an individual doesn't have to be charged with a crime to see his assets forfeited to the federal government, if officials can persuade a court that the asset itself is tied to illegal activity.

When suspicious cash is found, authorities often call in dogs that are trained to respond to the presence of illegal drugs. Federal statistics show there are well over 1,000 drug-related seizures per year, though it isn't known how many involve cash and dogs.

The reliability of "dog sniffs," long used in law-enforcement investigations, has been a topic of hot dispute. By the 1990s, courts were expressing doubts about the validity of searches that relied on dog-sniffs in the face of studies showing that up to 90% of all currency in circulation carried microscopic amounts of cocaine.

A 1996, a federal appellate-court decision called a dog alert on money "virtually meaningless," given the "extremely high percentage" of drug-tainted cash. A 1997 court decision said, "Even the government admits that no one can place much stock in the results of dog sniffs."

Scientific research came to the aid of law enforcement. Researchers concluded that dogs don't react to the cocaine itself, but to the odor of a chemical, methyl benzoate, given off by the drug. While cocaine traces might remain on a bill indefinitely, the methyl benzoate odor likely won't last more than a few weeks, said Janet Dooley, a trainer at Dogs Finding Drugs in Catonsville, Md.

The upshot: If a dog is properly trained to react just to methyl benzoate, "there is a high likelihood" that at least some of the money had recent contact with drugs, said Dr. Kenneth Furton, a professor of forensic chemistry at Florida International University and a prominent researcher in the field. While a dog's reaction still doesn't prove the money's owner was involved in drug trafficking, it "can be used as one piece of evidence," he said.

However, according to Dr. Furton, the dog should be trained to react to a relatively large presence of methyl benzoate, to protect against the possibility of a false alert to what is merely some incidental presence of drug residue. Dr. Furton says that there has been a school of training that uses relatively small amounts of cocaine to improve the dog's sensitivity—but he worries this could create more false alerts.

Dr. Furton says that in the late 1990s there was a wide variety in the quality of dog training. Since then there is been more of an effort by law enforcement to establish uniform standards for dog-training, a process some in the field refer to as the "sophisticated dog sniff."

A 2001 appellate-court decision upheld a $30,000 forfeiture based partly on a "sophisticated dog sniff" by a canine deemed properly trained to alert to methyl benzoate. A 2005 appeals court decision said that judges had "moved away from unquestioning acceptance of the currency contamination theory."

However, also in 2005, then Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote that "the infallible dog…is a creature of legal fiction," adding that out of hundreds of drug-related searches a dog "will be wrong dozens of times."

After battling in court filings over the reliability of Bruno's sniff, Mr. Nalou and the Justice Department settled their dispute this month. Mr. Nalou got back more than 70% of his money; the rest was forfeited to the government.


So wishing you the best in safety,

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