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Questionable Searches: A look at the effectiveness of canine units

KTSM
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POSTED: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - 10:00pm

UPDATED: Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 3:41pm

They can be law enforcement's best friend, but canines can also be fetching more lawsuits for authorities.

That has been the issue in three recent cases in the borderland; with customs officers at the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry, and Lordsburg and Deming police departments in New Mexico.

Each time, the drug-sniffing dogs alerted to drugs leading to a series of invasive and embarrassing searches.

Houston-area ACLU Texas attorney Adriana Piñon, who represents the 50-year-old New Mexico woman suing Customs and Border Protection OFO officers, says that was exactly her client's experience.

"When our client was crossing the bridge, there was a dog that leapt onto her. And after that a series of searches ensued."

Not just any searches, the lawsuit alleges, but what she claims are sexual assaults.

"Starting with an intrusive frisk, proceeding to a strip search. After the strip search our client was subjected to an x-ray exam, an observed bowel movement, a speculum exam, an anal search by a manual cavity exam," said Piñon. "Even though not one of those searches resulted in any evidence of wrong-doing, she was still subjected to yet another search, a CT scan."

All of that took more than six hours, according to Piñon and a trip to University Medical Center.

"At the end of all these searches, when nothing was found, she was released without any charges," said Piñon. "Securing our borders has become an excuse for outright abandonment of fundamental constitutional principles that safeguard our dignity and our privacy. And enough is enough."

Customs and Border Protection leaders refused to comment to NewsChannel 9 about this case, even when asked about the history of the dog that alerted to the drugs on the woman erroneously.

Piñon is also seeking to get the dog's performance record, she said.

"There is a lot of research that suggests drug-sniffing dogs and our reliance on them is unwarranted and that they're not always accurate," said Piñon.

NewsChannel 9 sought answers about how canines are trained and their accuracy from the U.S. Border Patrol.

Agents took us to their checkpoint 70 miles away from the Paso del Norte Bridge, on U.S. 180 in Hudspeth County, where K9s sniff out each vehicle that passes through.

U.S. Border Patrol and Customs officers share training facilities, curriculum, and methodologies when it comes to training their canines, according to CBP.gov.

The pups are hand-selected by breed and behavior, go through 11 weeks of training, then their noses get the ultimate test: 17 controlled searches, according to Border Patrol K9 Agent Supervisor Pedro Reyes.

If the dogs fail any of those searches, they must go through training all over again.

Yet a study conducted by the University of California, Davis shows there may be significant problems in the accuracy of dog-handler teams.

In 2011, researchers set up controlled scenarios for 18 law enforcement dogs and their handlers.

The results showed they wrongly alerted to substances or explosives 200 times, at the leading of their handlers.

Yet Border Patrol believes their canines are completely accurate, even when an alert is made and no drugs are found.

That is what they call a non-productive alert.

"The dog is initially trained to find the odor of the narcotics. So, let's say you have the narcotics in a vehicle and the narcotics are removed, then the dog would still alert to the odor of it, not to the substance that isn't there anymore," said Reyes.

"The dog still did his job. There was just nothing there for the agents to seize," he said.

The Border Patrol does not keep track of non-productive alerts, citing traffic demands at their checkpoints.

A fact that's of no comfort to travelers and border crossers, like Piñon's client.

"As we continue discussing the need for border security, it is also imperative that we also discuss better training," she said.

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