Phil Williams of Nashville’s NewsChannel 5, WTVF-TV, one of the best TV investigative journalists in the country, has been doing particularly stellar work over the last several years on civil asset forfeiture in central Tennessee. He has continued that work with a series of reports this week.
A traffic stop along Interstate 40 is raising new questions about your constitutional rights. Among the questions: what happens to your right to say “no” to a search when police are looking for cash?
The traffic stop occurred west of Nashville, along a stretch of interstate in Dickson County that’s become well-known for a controversial practice known as “policing for profit.” . . .
[Ronnie] Hankins and his wife Lisa had been on the road for days back in May, after attending a family funeral in Virginia, when they got stopped on the westbound side of I-40. It came right after they passed an interdiction agent with the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force.
Lisa was driving.
“I told her we are going to get pulled over,” Ronnie remembered.
“What made you think he was going to stop you?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
“Because we had out-of-state license plates and my wife is Hispanic.”
I personally know people who can vouch for this. Out-of-state plates, dark skin and driving through a forfeiture corridor will dramatically raise your odds of getting stopped. And it’s everywhere, not just Tennessee.
After separating Lisa from her husband, supposedly so he could write her a warning ticket for a traffic violation, dashcam video shows that the agent began repeatedly questioning her about what was inside the car.
Then, he had a favor to ask.
“You say there’s not anything illegal in it. Do you mind if I search it today to make sure?” the officer asked.
Lisa responded, “I’d have to talk to my husband.”
She told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, “I just feel like he was harassing me, you know, wanting me to say yes that he can search my car.”
The agent continued, “I am asking you for permission to search your vehicle today — and you are well within your rights to say no and you can say yes. It’s totally up to you as to whether you want to show cooperation or not.”
So why not say yes?
“I mean there was no reason for him to search my car,” Lisa said.
The interdiction agent told her that he was asking “because I do believe that you are not being honest with me.”
The agent didn’t believe their story that they had been to a funeral for Ronnie’s grandfather, even though a quick search of the Internet would have proved they were telling the truth.
“You have to either give me a yes or no,” he continued. “I do need an answer so I can figure out whether I need a dog to go around it or not.”
Lisa recalled, “I was getting upset because he kept on asking me over and over. I said you have no reason to search my car.”
They brought out a drug dog, which of course “alerted” to the presence of drugs. So the couple was subjected to an extremely thorough roadside search of their belongings. They ripped out the dash of the car, which the couple had recently bought new.
The police found no contraband. Here’s the punchline:
. . . when Ronnie insisted there were no drugs, the agent confided he wasn’t really expecting any.
“Well, I’ll be honest with you, with you going this direction, I wouldn’t think you’d have drugs in the car — you would have a large amount of money,” he said.
Williams’s previous investigations have shown that these drug task forces are far more likely to pull over motorists in the lane that’s leaving Nashville than the lane going into the city — for precisely the reason the officer gave to Hankins. If you pull over a car full of drugs, that’s of little value to a police department. But if you wait for the drugs to be sold, then pull over cars that meet your drug courier profile as they’re leaving a major city, they’re much more likely to be filled with cash. I’m not a supporter of the drug war, but if I were, I’d find that to be rather counterproductive.
And as it turns out, Hankins is a federal police officer in San Diego. Even that didn’t seem to prevent them from trampling on his and his wife’s Fourth Amendment rights. In their report, the police claimed to have found pot “debris” in the car, but not enough to charge the couple with a crime. This too is typical. It’s an attempt to make the stop, drug dog alert and all look legitimate. It also can’t be disproven. It’s an accusation that will never be tried in a court. Because of that, it’s also an insurance policy against bad publicity. People wrongly subjected to one of these stops who want to go public will now have their names publicly associated with a police report linking them to allegations of drug possession.
I’ve spoken to drug dog trainers who have told me that these dogs could be trained to not alert to “debris,” “shake,” “residue” and other immeasurable quantities of drugs. But the police departments don’t want them trained that way. They want them to alert to anything and everything, because they want to search any car that might turn up some cash for the police agency.
In a follow-up report, Williams showed the dash cam video of the alert to the Hankinses’ car to Dr. Lawrence Myers, a professor of veterinary medicine at Auburn University and a drug dog expert.
The first thing that Myers noticed is that there’s no microphone on the handler, raising all sorts of questions.
“Is the handler giving any audible cues to the dog or just simply saying sit?” he asked.
We followed up, “So in this case we don’t hear what he’s saying to the dog?”
“Not a clue,” he responded.
Myers also noted that the officer keeps his hands to himself on the passenger side, but — as he rounds the car — that suddenly changes.
“The officer pointed at the spot where the dog eventually sat before the dog sat,” Myers said. “That’s actually a cue.”
“Intentional?” we asked.
“I don’t think so.”
Myers said it could be a training issue.
“Dogs take their cues from people. ‘I must go investigate: what is he pointing at?’ Then having stopped and paused and the whole thing, the officer then releases tension on the leash. The dog goes, hmm, sit.”
In fact, the search did not turn up drugs or anything illegal.
Our investigation also uncovered another traffic stop where one interdiction agent from the 23rd led his dog around a vehicle three times without getting an alert.
Instead of accepting the result, he blamed the dog’s arthritis.
That’s when another officer brought out his dog. After two rounds, he got an alert — finally giving officers a reason to search.
That search too turned up no drugs. As I’ve written previously here at The Watch, drug dogs are notoriously unreliable, and often serve more to confirm the hunches of their handlers — intentionally or not. (My favorite example: the police department that actually named its drug dog “Guilty.”) And, of course, the entire reason we have a Fourth Amendment is to protect us from invasive searches based only on the hunches of government authorities.
Williams also asked why there was no audio for the drug dog alert.
As for why we don’t have audio from the dog handler in the Hankins case, his audio should have been recorded on a camera in his car.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked for video from that camera, and we were told that, for reasons no one could explain, it does not exist.
I think I know the explanation. Just another data point in support of the missing video presumption.