Justice and Due Process

Stick to the traffic ticket

Last month, a federal judge threw out a criminal felony case after finding that Utah’s police K9s need more training. According to U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, the training has proven to be insufficient and does not warrant the confidence the system places in it. This case questions the legitimacy of police K9s, but also calls into question the ethics of relying on low-level traffic laws as a plot to catch someone in wrongdoing completely unrelated to driving. 

The case began last February when a detective pulled over a speeding car near West Valley City. But this wasn’t an ordinary traffic stop — it was preconceived. The officer had been surveilling a person he suspected of dealing drugs, and was simply waiting for a reason to pull him over and conduct a search. And on that cold, winter day, he found his opportunity. 

After running the person’s license plate and finding out his registration had expired, the detective talked with the suspect who verified that he could get someone to come pick him up. At this point, he was simply waiting for his ride when a West Valley police officer arrived with his K9 Tank to sniff the car. The detective had called for the K9 a few minutes earlier, but the suspect didn’t realize this was coming. 

Tank sniffed the exterior of the car, but never alerted to any drug odors. Instead, Tank seemed to be distracted, acting like a normal dog rather than a trained narcotics police dog. Despite the lack of alert, the police officer told the suspect that Tank was in fact detecting narcotics. His reasoning? “I can tell, as his handler, from his behavior.” And while it’s tempting to take him at his word, Dr. Cablk, a trained animal observer, came to the opposite conclusion after reviewing the evidence from the incident.

The officers found a pipe with marijuana residue on it, a digital scale, and a firearm; no actual drugs were discovered as they expected. The suspect had a prior felony, prohibiting him from legally owning a gun. Federal prosecutors charged him with marijuana possession and illegal possession of a firearm, but these charges were dropped after a successful motion by the suspect’s attorney to suppress the illegally obtained evidence. In Judge Waddoups’ decision, he outlined the importance of good K9 training in relation to Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

“In allowing a K9’s indication, or even its alert, to serve as a basis for finding probable cause to search an individual’s personal property, we, as a society, are placing an enormous amount of trust, and indeed our very civil liberties, in the responses of creatures that have limited ability to communicate with us. It is therefore imperative that a K9 be meticulously trained so that we can be assured that its signals are clear and direct and that we, as a community, can be confident in the reliability of the message that the K9 is communicating.”

In this case, law enforcement had a clear goal of catching their suspect with drugs. They let their bias of opinion get in the way of constitutional privacy rights against unreasonable searches. And they used a low-level traffic violation to put the suspect in that situation in the first place, rather than waiting for actual probable cause (related to suspected drugs) to search his property. 

Traffic violations should not be used as a gateway to try to catch unrelated wrongdoing. But it happens frequently, because it’s an easy way to detain people with the hundreds of potential traffic violations, from failing to signal a lane change to speeding.  Using these lower-level offenses to seek out any prosecutable evidence is an underhanded tactic that undermines each of our civil liberties. Sure, officers will likely catch a few bad guys using these methods, but how many people’s rights are being skirted around to reach that goal? The ends don’t justify the means.

As the Constitution notes, we have the right to be free from unreasonable searches. Yet, anytime we get in our car, we risk not only being pulled over for a traffic violation, but also searched. Consider the following. Many people carry cash on them, which carries drug residue among other forms of debris and bacteria. This alone makes it easy for law enforcement to have a reason to enter the vehicle for a search, even if a person has never touched illegal drugs in their life. (And that money can be taken through civil asset forfeiture, again quite unrelated to the initial traffic stop.) Even if police avoid using K9s and simply ask the person if they can search their vehicle, research shows most people agree to such searches because they feel pressured to do so. This is partially because of the intimidation factor of a uniformed police officer with a badge and a gun, and also because of the language officers tend to use when casually asking to “take a look around” in the vehicle, for example. 

In the criminal case thrown out by Judge Waddoups, police used traffic laws to go after a suspect they were wanting to investigate about an issue unrelated to driving. But even if police weren’t targeting him for a suspected crime, they still could have called the K9 unit and had the same result. Perhaps they had a gut feeling that the driver wasn’t a law-abiding citizen. Or perhaps he was wearing a tie dye shirt and looked the part of a stoner, or was an ethnic minority and thought to be involved in gang activity. We would never know for sure the motives leading to such searches, but the initial traffic stop allows them to occur. But one thing that is clear is that these fishing expeditions do happen, and they shouldn’t.

It has even happened to me. I was on my way to a music festival a couple summers ago when the bright lights flashed in my rearview mirror. Apparently I was “following too closely” to the vehicle ahead, which didn’t make sense because there was no car in front of me. But it all clicked when a K9 unit pulled up behind the main officer’s car: I was going to be searched. The dog didn’t find anything, but it was the first time in my life I was very clearly targeted by police. It was because of where I was going (an outdoor camping music festival) and probably how young my passenger and I looked (two college kids). It also happened to a number of other vehicles approaching the festival. Unless multiple K9 units regularly monitor rural back roads, it’s a very clear example of using traffic laws to perform police fishing expeditions.

Law enforcement exists to protect people by catching dangerous criminals — and individual officers dedicate their career to ensure this happens. But using frequent violations of very minor traffic laws as an opportunity to sniff out other violations of the law doesn’t fit the “protect and serve” narrative we hold them to. And when K9s are used to assist law enforcement, it’s imperative that our civil liberties be protected by ensuring that these creatures are well trained and unbiased.