Gun Dogs: The rise of firearms-sniffing K-9s
One of the newest trends is the use of a well-trained K-9 partner to detect firearms
By Ted Daus
In the ever-evolving world of police canine usage, it has become popular to find additional ways to put the exceptional scent detection abilities of the dog to use. Police around the world regularly use dogs to locate narcotics, bombs and for tracking humans. Law enforcement has also expanded the use of dogs into areas of agriculture, fish and wildlife, and even cell phone detection in prison, to name a few unique purposes. One of the newest trends that has recently surfaced and is becoming more widely accepted across the country is the use of a well-trained canine partner to detect firearms. This article will highlight the legal and practical issues and use of this valuable resource.
Gun Searches and Probable Cause
It goes without saying that a gun dog is merely an investigative tool to locate an item. The basic possession of a firearm, in and of itself, is not illegal per se, like narcotics. Depending upon the laws of each state, guns may be possessed legally by citizens in many ways. Therefore, the deployment of a well-trained gun dog will not necessarily provide law enforcement with probable cause to search, because possession of a gun is not, under general circumstances, illegal.
The most common use of a gun dog that immediately comes to mind is the article search.
Example: an armed robbery suspect is on the loose and was seen — while running from the police — discarding an object in a field or over a fence, before being taken into custody.
A lot of police departments currently have welltrained dogs that work finding articles, such as a gun, by locating the scent left behind on the handle by the suspect that the k-9 officer was just tracking. The human scent on the firearm could be affected by both the length of time in the field, the elements the gun was exposed to, and the conditions under which the gun was carried or possessed.
One such condition that should be considered is finding a gun that was tossed while a suspect was running, but was wearing gloves. The gun itself will maintain its odor longer, under certain situations, than the human scent left on the handle of the gun as related to a traditional article search preformed by a tracking dog. The gun dog is trained to focus on odor that relates exclusively to the oils, powder and residue commonly associated with a dischared firearm and not human odor.
Another benefit to a gun canine under the aforementioned circumstances is that the dog handler does not have to worry about human scent contamination of the area to be searched. Every handler, at some point in time, has come across a scene where their colleagues have inadvertently trampled through the area to be searched. With the use a gun dog, those issues are not a concern for the gun dog handler that is trying to locate a firearm, because the dog focuses only on the odor associated with guns and ammunition.
Use of a Gun Dog During a Search Warrant
The use of a drug dog during the execution of a narcotics search warrant makes common sense. The judge has found “probable cause” that drugs would be present at a certain location and a drug dog’s talent to detect and pinpoint drug odor is an invaluable tool in finding drugs in unique hiding places that might ordinarily be overlooked overlooked.
The dog’s nose is a tool that relates to finding the focus of the warrant “Drugs”. What about the use of a gun dog during the execution of a drug search warrant? The question becomes more difficult to answer under various circumstances. If all one has is a standard controlled buy of cocaine and nothing else, the answer would have to be “no”. Law enforcement is only allowed or authorized by the judge to look for the items for which probable cause has been proven. In the example above, the item in question would only be cocaine. How would a gun dog aid you in finding cocaine? It wouldn’t.
Why would you bring a bomb dog to your narcotics search warrant? You would not because bomb dogs are of no use in finding drugs. The same would be said for a gun dog under the above example. Assume that during the controlled buy of cocaine, a confidential informant tells the police that the defendant either had a gun on him or saw a gun in an area within ready reach of the defendant. Does that change things?
There is a very good argument that it does. If being in possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony such as selling dope is a crime — as it is in most jurisdictions — then a police officer would have a secondary crime occurring that the judge could recognize and use to authorize the police to look for evidence of its commission. This evidence would be the gun.
If the pot is sweetened and the target is a convicted felon, being in possession of a firearm is a valid secondary charge occurring at the same time of your controlled buy. Then the use of a gun dog would be a valuable tool to locate the hand gun inside the house during the execution of that warrant. The general use of a gun dog during a basic drug warrant could end in a motion to suppress with issues as to why a gun dog was used if the warrant contained no evidence of gun use or possession in the house being searched.
Gang or Homicide Search Warrants
Another helpful area for the practical use of a gun dog would be during the execution of a search warrant in a location that a violent gang in the city uses as a flop house. As long as the police can relate the house to violent gang activity and those members living at the residence to be searched have some gun history, the police stand a good chance to convince the judge to allow them to look for weapons which would relate to a drive-by shooting that law enforcement knows was committed by a certain gang.
Hopefully, the discovery of the gun would lead to some type of ballistic match that might solve the crime. Along the same vein, the gun dog would be very useful in searching the house, attic, garage or yard for the gun hidden in a domestic style or staged home invasion, robbery, burglary or homicide. On some occasions, the firearm is actually hidden on the premises itself. The homicide detectives develop probable cause to search a location for evidence including the possible murder weapon. The gun dog would be an excellent asset to have at the police department’s disposal in an attempt to locate the weapon in a timely manner or direct the detectives to a unique area to search that might be overlooked by the human eye.
Furthermore, a well trained and maintained gun dog has the ability to not only find firearms, but also shell casings. At first blush, this would not seem to be that fruitful to a basic investigation, but technology allows a crime lab to match spent shell casings to each other and eventually to a firearm. By comparing shell casings from crime scene “A” and casings from crime scene “B” weeks later, your crime lab can determine whether they were fired from the same gun.
This information will allow you to link your crimes as being related. That relationship can now be explored, by law enforcement, to find things in common to the crime scenes themselves or comparing common traits of the victims that could very well lead to narrowing of your field of possible suspects.
Valuable information comes across the desk of law enforcement every day, and sometimes that information relates to finding a murder weapon stored or hidden at a third party’s house or apartment. On occasion, time is of the essence and information needs to be acted upon quickly— more quickly than a search warrant can be obtained. Or the information gathered by law enforcement does not provide enough detail to establish probable cause for a search warrant.
This leaves the police with an option of obtaining consent to search the location for the firearm. If consent is obtained, the gun dog allows the police to quickly and efficiently search for gun odor without having to “toss the place”.
Remember, never have the dog present while on scene during a request for consent to search. This is done to lessen the issues surrounding a coercive environment as consent must be freely and voluntarily given. On a consent search, dealing with the parents or grandparents in a effective and professional manner could make all the difference in finding the gun. A well-trained gun dog can provide law enforcement with such an option.
Probation & Parole Sweeps
Police are often called upon by probation or parole officers to assist them in an administrative search of a defendant’s residence. Police officers should check with their local jurisdiction but most areas of the country do not allow probationers to possess firearms, or even live in a place where there is access to firearms (even if they belong to a parent or a roommate). Gun dogs locating a firearm or even just ammunition could enable law enforcement to pursue a violation of probation or parole in court, and lead to finding the probationer in violation of his supervision.
It is plain to see from the various examples above, a gun dog could be a new and valuable resource to any police department, especially an active urban department or a sheriff’s office responsible for a large area of the state.