Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series
By Josh Arntz
The Dickson Herald
Published Nov. 26, 2014
The local district attorney general and drug task force director defended their agents’ and drug canine’s actions during a summer traffic stop in an interview with The Herald last week at DTF headquarters in Dickson.
District Attorney General Ray Crouch and Drug Task Force Director Brian Beasley responded to Phil Williams’ latest report in the “Policing for Profit” series, which alleged drug dogs are unreliable and drug agents violated a California couple’s civil rights.
Beasley said the agents’ behavior was “legal” and “moral” during the May traffic stop along Interstate 40 westbound, reportedly involving motorists Ronnie and Lisa Hankins, of San Diego.
“Everything that happened on that (dashcam) tape, I’m comfortable with,” Beasley told The Herald. “There’s nothing that happened there that I think made me cringe, that made me think ‘Man, we did something wrong there.'”
Crouch noted no charges were filed against the Hankins out of the traffic stop, and nothing was taken from their vehicle.
“They were given a warning,” he said. “Nothing was seized from them. No case was made.”
Crouch explained the Hankins were stopped for following too closely and an improper lane change, not because Lisa (the driver) is Hispanic, or the out-of-state license plate on their car.
“I don’t believe that (the agent) thought that she was Hispanic or from Mexico,” he added. “And I don’t believe that’s the reason he stopped her.”
The Hankins displayed “suspicious behavior” during the traffic stop, Crouch noted, which led to the agents deploying a drug-alerting K-9, despite Lisa repeatedly refusing consent to a vehicle search.
Crouch and Beasley also denied the dog was cued to alert on the Hankins’ car.
“Do I think that the dog was cued inadvertently or intentionally, absolutely not. No I don’t,” Crouch said. “If I thought that, not only would that dog not be working, but neither would Nathan Proctor.”
Alerting to odor
Beasley, who has experience working with a K-9 officer named Myla, said there’s no training “per se” for a handler to “force” a dog into a drug alert.
“There’s no behind the back, wink, shake, alright if you clap your hands twice the dog’s going to sit kind of stuff, like in their story they implied by (the handler/agent) pointing at a window,” he noted.
Being a dog handler, Beasley is “very passionate” about the K-9 agents, “because we’ve done a lot of good things” with them.
He explained handlers can use hand gestures to point to an area where the dog needs to smell, but the dog’s behavior indicates the alert, and they’re “amazingly reliable.”
“With Myla, she is 100-percent to date,” Beasley said. “During the interview in speaking with (a suspect), there was some explanation as to why she has alerted, and most other dogs are the same way too.”
Beasley and Crouch pointed to the training and certifications for the agency’s dogs as evidence of their reliability.
Crouch explained residue and odors left by narcotics trigger alerts, even when the physical substance is absent.
“That’s not necessarily a false hit when a dog alerts and there’s not dope there,” he said. “That’s why it’s important not to grade a dog on simply just finding a drug or not finding a drug.”
Beasley concurred, noting the “key thing you got to remember” is the dog alerted to the odor of a narcotic.
“It’s not alerting to a narcotic,” he said.
Beasley added, the dogs aren’t biased, and only rewarded when they find the “physical presence” of a narcotic.
“That’s another reason why I think dogs are more reliable,” Crouch said. “They don’t care what color you are, what state you’re from or what car you’re driving, they’re trained to do one thing.”
Crouch explained a court looks at the “totality” of the evidence combined to judge the “reasonable suspicion” of a defendant.
During the Hankins’ traffic stop, the agents observed “mixed signals” indicating “suspicious” behavior, Crouch reported, which led to a request to search their vehicle; and using the “certified dog” as a way to establish probable cause for the search when they declined consent.
Among those mixed signals, Crouch referenced Lisa’s allegedly changing description of a family member at a funeral, as a father and a grandfather.
“My kids call my dad and my granddad, they call them both granddad,” Crouch noted. “That’s explainable.”
Crouch then described suspicious behavior by Ronnie, who wouldn’t “articulate” his own position as a law enforcement officer in California, and gave “this banter that really doesn’t make sense” while “sweating profusely.”
The Hankins told Williams that Ronnie comes off that way after serving in Iraq; and they both were “tired and jittery” from the road trip.
“The courts from my perspective, you’re looking at the totality of the aggregate, all of the evidence combined,” Crouch posited. “Is this enough to give you reasonable suspicion to think ‘Hey, these people may be doing something they shouldn’t be doing’?
“I mean I’m not a judge, in this case I think that’s why the officers both felt like there were some underlying issues… there were just several reasons why it seemed like they were being misled,” he added.
Crouch noted the agents’ suspicion was justified because the Hankins denied carrying weapons in the car, but the agents allegedly found weapons during their search.
Beasley told The Herald after last week’s interview that he verified Hankins is a certified officer “that was legal to have the weapons that were located hidden in the trunk.”
Williams’ report cited 15 cases out of 24 canine alerts this year that didn’t yield “contraband.” Williams noted those reports detailed reasons why the agents suspected the absence of contraband, ranging from rental cars to marijuana “shake,” i.e., “debris.”
Beasley explained those reports are an “extra step” in the investigation process, often based on an interview with the suspect, and an effort to be “thorough.”
“(Williams) and his expert are saying that you should not rely on the interview after the fact,” Beasley said.
The interviews however, may detail a “transference” of the narcotic odor, Beasley explained, like a child’s backpack being “saturated” in an environment with marijuana smoke, thus explaining the canine alert.
“A lot of times, like what the story previously had said that nothing was found, nothing was found,” Beasley said, “but more often than not it’s the transference of that order, or if you speak with people, ‘Yeah, a guy smoked a marijuana joint in here yesterday,’ or you know those type things.”
He added, the agents complete the search-find reports based on the recommendation of the agency’s K-9 trainer.
“We’re paying him for his expertise, so we’re going to kind of follow his expertise on that,” Beasley continued.
In the Hankins case, the agents allegedly found “marijuana debris,” according to Williams’ report, which the Hankins disputed as “grass” from a cemetery.
Ronnie told Williams no drugs had ever been in the vehicle.
Beasley backed his agents’ investigation, explaining DTF agents know the difference between marijuana and blades of grass.
“If you can’t tell the difference between fescue or ganja, you’ve got issues,” Beasley said.
“We’re definitely doing it the right way,” he added. “There’s no doubt in my mind. As far as with the shake, they’re able to recognize that.”
Beasley and Crouch said they found out about the Hankins’ complaint when they came into office shortly after the Aug. 7 election.
No one had followed up on their complaint, Crouch noted.
Beasley said he called Ronnie about the complaint, but the latter reportedly declined to discuss it.
Crouch acknowledge the existence of “police officers who do wrong,” but posited the “vast majority of them do right.”
“Yeah, there’s going to be bad cops,” Crouch said, “but in this particular case with Hankins, this is not a bad-cop-good-cop issue.”
It’s a difference of opinion, he noted.
“This is, these people have an opinion on why the dog seized or hit on their car and we’re rebutting that,” Crouch said.