Sniffing out trouble

Drug dogs to keep high school students on short leash

Dogs may be man's best friend, but for some Tri-Valley students, in the not-too-distant future, they may be anything but.

The Pleasanton school board has approved a plan to allow drug detection dogs to do scent searches of student and teacher parking lots and gym lockers, although the board held off giving final approval until it finalizes its policy to address the issue.

Using dogs to sniff for drugs can be traced to 1971, when, during the war in Vietnam, dogs were trained to scent on marijuana in an effort to curb its use by military personnel. The idea was soon adopted by U.S. customs for use in airports and border crossings, and picked up by police departments nationwide. Pleasanton has had its own dogs for 30 years, according to Lt. Scott Rohovit, and currently has three dogs, two for sniffing drugs and one used to detect explosives.

Officer Tim Martens works with Camo, 9, a Dutch shepherd from Holland; Martens said most police dogs come from Europe. In the U.S., he said, dogs are bred for their physical appearance; in Europe, dogs are bred for competitions that include agility, fending off an attacker and paramilitary exercises.

Thinking of police dogs might bring to mind large, frightening dogs like Doberman pinschers, but the two drug dogs in Pleasanton seem a far cry from that.

Camo, for example, seems just like a friendly family dog, which he is, most of the day.

"When he's at home, he's pretty mellow," Martens said.

Even while at work, it seems he's just as happy to be goofing off as sniffing out drugs. Martens said with Camo, whom he's had for 6 years, he's got the best of both worlds.

"I get to go to work every day with my buddy," Martens said. "And when a crime comes down, we're right in the thick of things."

Martens and Camo work the day shift, while Officer Mark Sheldon works nights with Falco, a 2-year-old purebred German shepherd from the Czech Republic. They say most of the work is routine but far from boring.

Largely, they're brought in to search when an officer making a traffic stop suspects drugs are in a car, or when someone on probation or parole is stopped. Parolees and probationers have search clauses issued by the courts that allow police to search them, their cars and homes without a warrant.

Falco, who began working with Sheldon last October, is also used to enter a business when an alarm goes off and there are signs of forced entry, although Sheldon said officers always follow up and search the premises themselves.

"It's your job to put him in the places where he's going to succeed," Sheldon said.

The two dogs react to drugs -- marijuana, heroin, MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, and methamphetamines -- in different ways. Camo scratches when he scents drugs, while Falco is a passive alert dog, meaning he sits when he gets a scent.

Martens said the dogs don't have any direct contact with suspects.

"We never use the dogs to search people," he said, which fits with the school district's plan to use them out of the presence and sight of students.

Police have said they would not charge the district for the searches.

Other school districts

Pleasanton isn't the first local district to use dogs. Both Livermore and Dublin have used dogs for searches, while the San Ramon Valley hasn't even considered them, according to school district spokesman Terry Koehne.

"We do not use them currently, and we have not had any conversations about using them at this point," Koehne said. San Ramon has three dogs, Dar, Deny and Bongo. Danville's dog, Donna, may be retired soon; the town recently won a police dog at a raffle who could replace her.

Dublin Superintendent Steve Henke said they haven't been used in the six years he's been with the district, but said that's about to change.

"We actually have had it in our policy for a time," he said.

Henke explained that the district had used an outside service that was discontinued. Now, he said, the district plans to work with Dublin police, much like the plan for Pleasanton.

"It's been a while," Henke said. "I would say that it does prove to be a deterrent, as part of a program. Drug prevention education is critically important in this."

Drug-sniffing dogs are an active part of the Livermore school district's war on drugs, according to Assistant Superintendent Chris Van Schaack.

"We believe it's been very effective in helping modify the culture at school campuses," Van Schaack said. "We don't believe the drug dogs are going to modify the behavior of students, but we want 8 o'clock to 4 o'clock to be sacred."

For the last five or six years -- since Van Schaack was principal at Granada High School -- the dogs have been brought in six to 10 times a year at random.

"The first couple of years we only did it two or three times," he said. "We were real careful to follow all the guidelines."

The dogs are used a little more aggressively than is planned for Pleasanton: In Livermore, when they're brought in, students are asked to leave their backpacks behind in the classroom and class is held somewhere else.

"We have the kids go on, we call them field trips. The kids go outside and study," Van Schaack said.

Like Henke in Dublin, Van Schaack said the dogs are mainly a deterrent and should be part of a bigger drug prevention program; similarly, Pleasanton school board members said searches here would be part of a "multi-pronged program."

Van Schaack said it's impossible to know how well they work because the district didn't know how many students were bringing drugs to school in the first place. But he noted that 10 students have been found to have drugs in their possession in the last five or six years.

"Typically it's zero or one (per search). And recently, I think they haven't found anything in five or six times," he said. "Kids say other kids still sell and do drugs, but not there."

Van Schaack also said the dogs have been accurate.

"Not one single time has a dog hit on a car or a locker or a backpack that we didn't find something," he said.


Van Schaack's assertion that the dogs are accurate has been challenged elsewhere, and their questionable accuracy is a problem for Pleasanton School Board Member Jamie Hintzke.

An analysis by the Chicago Tribune in January 2011 showed over a three-year period that dogs were correct only about 44% of the time, and only about 27% for Hispanic drivers. In the piece, dog handlers defended the findings, noting that the scent of drugs and paraphernalia can last long after drugs are sold or used.

However, the piece noted that even advocates of drug dogs agreed with experts who say many of the dogs and handlers "are poorly trained and prone to false alerts."

The analysis also noted that officers' personal biases can lead a dog to scent drugs when none is present.

Legal issues

Opponents of Pleasanton's plan to implement drug detection dogs have vowed to sue, claiming a violation of students' Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless searches and seizures, although students on school grounds don't have the same rights as adults. For a student to be searched, all school administrators need is a reasonable suspicion, which is a legal proof less than probable cause.

In pushing for the drug dogs, Kevin Johnson, Pleasanton school district's senior director of pupil services, cited a 2010 Connecticut case in which Harold Burbank sued the board of education in the town of Canton. The court concluded that a warrantless sweep using drug-sniffing dogs was not a search under the Fourth Amendment "because students do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the odor or 'aroma' emanating from their unattended lockers and motor vehicles on school property."

The Connecticut court also found that ordering students to remain in their classrooms did not constitute a seizure because school officials are authorized to schedule student activities during the school day; the students were allowed to leave their classrooms in the case of an emergency; and much of the time the students were kept in their normal classrooms.

However, in California, a 2000 opinion by then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer said:

"(S)chool administrators at a public high school may not implement a policy requiring on an unannounced, random, and neutral basis that (1) pupils be directed to vacate their classrooms and leave behind their personal belongings, including backpacks, purses, jackets, and outer garments, for sniffing by canines trained in the detection of drugs, (2) the pupils would proceed to a location not within the immediate vicinity of the canines and would remain away from the canines at all times, and (3) if a canine's behavior indicated the presence of drugs, the pupil's personal belongings would be searched by the school administrators without the pupil's consent."

Cases in California have shown individual districts handling the situation differently. In 1997, Galt Joint Union High School District dropped its plan to use drug detection dogs after the threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, according to ACLU-NC spokeswoman Laura Saponara.

In that case, the district also agreed to pay lawyers' fees to end the case, Saponara said.

A 1999 case brought by a student at a high school in Plumas County dismissed the student's claim that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

But a 2009 search at La Canada Unified School District in Southern California prompted the district to revise its policies after the constitutionality of the school district's search and seizure practices were questioned by a parent who is a career federal public defender, according to the La Canada Valley Sun. Guy

Iversen, the father of two sons who were subject to that search, told the school board that, "Technically, if you don't have justification, that's a kidnapping."

He said students' rights were violated when they were separated from their personal belongings against their will and without reasonable suspicion.

The U.S. Supreme Court may have the final word on the matter. While it has ruled on drug detection dogs in the past, the court has agreed to hear a new case, Florida v. Jardines. That case, involving a drug detection dog outside an alleged marijuana grow house, may change how dogs can be used in searches.

It's unlikely, however, that the court will rule before the Pleasanton board lets drug dogs start their searches here. The board expects to have its new policy allowing the searches in place by Feb. 28. With approval by Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi, a search could be done the next day.


Like this comment
Posted by cardinal
a resident of Diablo
on Feb 3, 2012 at 9:43 am

They're making those poor canines sniff HS kids' Lockers??! Back in the day, that would have been considered animal cruelty. Unless time-honored teenage hygiene habits have changed dramatically, those pups oughta at least get hazardous duty biscuits.

Man, tough week for dogs!

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of San Ramon
on Feb 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Ahhhhh public school trash and their drugs!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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