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Manchester Town leaders and residents better think twice whether it is a good idea to add a drug dog to the Manchester Police Force. A drug dog will not increase public safety. It will instead increase the likelihood that police will use it to pressure motorists into “consenting” to baseless car and passenger searches.

It was very disappointing that Select Board Chair Ivan Beattie said the Board was “pretty sure (they were) in favor” of hiring a police dog. Was there any thought being given to how this will make the Town look to tourists? Or whether the Town will be exposing itself to potential civil rights lawsuits for illegal search and seizure based upon a dog falsely signaling or “alerting” to drugs in a car? Or why a drug dog is even necessary? This is yet another example of the wasteful and failed “War on Drugs” mentality, that increased law enforcement will end the drug problem.

The police justifications for a drug dog are misleading. If the Town hires a dog, its primary function will be to coerce motorists into allowing searches of vehicles, people, and belongings. Does Manchester really want to project such a “law and order” image to visitors whenever a Police dog sniffs around a vehicle on Main Street on a holiday weekend? Contrary to the nonsensical arguments about a drug dog “loving people” and calming those who may be upset, even if true, the main reason why such a dog would be hired would be to search for drugs.

The Game Warden attending the recent public meeting said that seeing a police dog or police car marked “K-9” “will calm some situations, and prevent people from running or getting aggressive”. In other words, “keeping people from getting aggressive” merely confirms that a drug dog is being used to intimidate and to pressure motorists into allowing police into their cars and personal belongings. Left unsaid was that the State Police have their own drug dogs, who can be called in if police have probable cause to seek a motor vehicle search, or need to track missing persons. The notion of having a dog at an accident scene to provide comfort to victims or even first responders is hardly justification for the ongoing expense, legal exposure and negative publicity for Manchester to have a drug dog. If necessary, an officer can use his or her own dog for those purposes.

Many courts have thrown out the results of police searches of cars and passengers where a drug dog was brought in but the police did not have reasonable suspicion that a driver or passenger was engaging in illegal drug activity. If the Manchester Police get a drug dog, there certainly will be more frequent and longer car searches. The Vermont Supreme Court has not yet said that under the Vermont Constitution, a drug dog sniff of a car, without more, can justify a search. However, the United States Supreme Court and our own Supreme Court have said that under the Fourth Amendment and the Vermont Constitution, police may not extend an otherwise completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, in order to conduct a dog sniff. The United States Supreme Court has also held that police using a drug-sniffing dog on the front porch of a house was an invasion of the homeowner’s right to privacy which required a Search Warrant.

There’s also ample documentation that drug dogs can be manipulated by their handlers and can be prone to giving false alerts indicating the presence of drugs. A published 2011 study by researchers at the University of California at Davis found that “handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes”. In other words, when the dog handlers believed that drugs were hidden in test areas, their drug dogs were much more likely to indicate that drugs were present – even where no drugs actually existed.

As most dog owners know, a smart and motivated dog can be trained to do just about anything, when the dog’s owner can use subtle physical or audible clues to induce the dog to behave in the desired fashion. This is a big problem with police dogs, because virtually any behavior in the course of a dog search can be, and often is, interpreted by the dog’s police handler as an “alert”, again creating false justification to coerce a search of a vehicle, suitcase, or passenger.

Unsurprisingly, drug dogs are sarcastically referred to by police as “probable cause on four legs”. Police wrongly consider them “infallible” in detecting the presence of drugs by creating automatic probable cause for searches and seizures, undercutting constitutional protections against illegal searches. In Republic, Washington, a police drug dog, Karma, “alerted” the presence of drugs 100 percent of the time during roadside sniffs outside of vehicles. However, police found drugs in only 29 percent of the vehicles that Karma flagged over a 2 year period. When the dog walked around a drug free vehicle, it still gave a trained response alerting to drugs. Today, the town of Republic no longer has a drug dog unit or even a police department. Perhaps this resulted from a Federal Civil Rights lawsuit stemming from Karma falsely alerting to the presence of drugs on a vehicle that contained nothing illegal, but the car was impounded due to the dog sniff.

When peeling away the police feel-good rhetoric, there is absolutely no need for Manchester to have a drug dog. It will create a hostile vision of the town to visitors – particularly persons of color, whose vehicles are searched more often in Vermont than white motorists. A drug dog will increase the likelihood of illegal car searches with potential exposure to a Civil Rights lawsuit for wrongful search and seizure. Drug dogs are used as an excuse to search cars when people refuse consent, which tramples our rights as citizens. We certainly don’t need a drug dog for Manchester.

Myerson is a criminal defense attorney with an office in Manchester. He lives in Pawlet. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manchester Journal.


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