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Bodycams Serve as Check on Claims About K-9 Searches

Drug-sniffing dogs, long thought to be impartial, face stronger challenges to the grounds for their drug searches based on body-worn camera footage, NPR reports. A newly filed federal lawsuit by Houston resident Alek Schott accuses Bexar County sheriff's deputy Joel Babb of pulling him over on Interstate 35 on false pretenses, and then, when he refused to give permission to search his pickup truck, he says K-9 unit deputy Martin A. Molina III prompted his dog to "alert" to the scent of drugs. K-9 handler body camera video shows the deputy's right hand gesturing to the dog. Schott's lawsuit claims that gesture prompted the dog to jump on the door, giving deputies the right to open the truck and search inside. No drugs were found. "It's clear to me that he's telling the dog to alert," Schott says. "I thought, 'These guys are trying to destroy my life.'" Schott is represented by Christie Hebert, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties organization focused on search and seizure. She says they're pursuing the lawsuit because they believe the deputies violated Schott's rights and did so in part by relying on the dog. "You think of a dog as not having an agenda," Hebert says. "But the fact is, they're influenced by their handlers' agenda and they want to please their masters."

Some K-9 trainers have called for "double-blind" testing of the dogs, in which the location and existence of test drugs are randomized, unknown even to the dog's handler. But that approach has been slow to catch on and is often met with hostility. Former K-9 officer and trainer Andy Falco has hopes that the spread of body cameras will change that. "I think it's good for the K-9 units that these things are out there," he says of cameras. "It'll make them train harder, and perhaps even some of them that weren't doing double-blind sniffs will start doing double-blind sniffs!" Falco works as an expert witness in cases involving sniffer dogs, and he says the number of legal challenges based on close-up videos has dramatically increased. Most cases involve cameras now, allowing for close-up reviews of every gesture and move of handlers and dogs. When Falco was shown the video from Bexar County, he saw why Schott is suing. "The right hand facing up, and then moving it upward — that is the command to sit. There's not any reason why he would be doing it where he's doing it, so it is out of place," he says. "That appears to be a cue of some sort that he gives the dog."


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