Imagine if you will that a new test for drugs came out. Let’s say I held a stick and walked through some cars, and if the car had drugs in it, the stick moved towards the car, allowing me to search the car. What’s more, the stick was right a whopping 44% of the time. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
I trust that you are unimpressed. What if I told you that the stick was somehow less effective when the drivers of the cars where hispanic? that a change in the color of the skin would suddenly drop the accuracy of the stick to a mere 27%? Would you think that something must be awry with the device, as if it were picking up on the personal opinions of the person holding the stick?
Of course you would. But what if you found out it was a dog?
Welcome to the reality of the war on drugs. It turns out that drug sniffing dogs aren’t all that good at their jobs, and that has led some to question whether or not they are actually reacting not to the scent of drugs, but to the Clever Hans problem? I won’t go into this, as Sebastian from Obsidian Wings has already done a great job of doing so.
But for anyone who is wondering if this is really a big deal, that at least we are trying to find the drugs and we’re seeing some success, I think you need to really think this through. If a dog search is a legal search because the impression of the dog that you have drugs is enough to justify reasonable cause, but that impression isn’t actually valid, then that means that we are subjecting people to what should for all intents and purposes be considered an unlawful search and seizure.
In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the PGP debate of several years ago. What’s that? You have no idea what I’m talking about? Well, let me explain.PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy, and it was an encryption tool that was built by a guy named Phil Zimmermann. The software was excellent, so excellent in fact that the government couldn’t violate your privacy by reading your emails. So they did their best to discredit it and to make it impossible to get. The big thing they did was spreading the question, “What do you have to hide?” That’s a question we’ve seen a lot in the last few years. It’s not really a question, so much as it is an accusation. If you don’t want the government to read your emails, then obviously it’s because you have some dire secret to hide. And you know what? I do. I have lots to hide. I hide it because it’s my business, and not anyone else’s. If my mom is sick or my ex-wife is angry or my left testicle is slightly larger than the right, these things are my business and not my government’s. The Patriot Act brought the question back into the limelight. The idea that being brown was enough to warrant suspicion was distasteful, but many people considered it less distasteful than being blown up by a terrorist. But what about all the brown people who had nothing to do with terrorism? Well, they said, if they have nothing to hide then they shouldn’t be worried, right? That’s not how a free country works. And now we have cops engaging it what accounts to illegal search and seizure on a massive scale, although presumably this was not expected by them. Is it time to scrap the drug sniffing dog program? How do we know? The answer is obvious to me. We need to create a scenario where we can put the dogs through their paces. I don’t know if we can get away with different handlers or not (that depends on how the dogs are trained, I imagine) but we should at the very least be able to take a day, randomly select a bunch of dogs, and have an airport-type situation with people of varying ethnic backgrounds, some of whom will be in possession of drugs, some of whom will have recently been in possession of drugs or paraphernalia, and some of whom would be completely free and clear. All of the people in the crowd would have backpacks or suitcases that they would not be able to open, and would be unaware of whether or not they had drugs on them. With a large enough group and a properly controlled dispersal of drugs, we should be able to see the accuracy of the dogs and determine if there is any real reason to assume that the dogs work. Something tells me that’s not going to happen. The police these days aren’t seeming to be that interested in holding up the light of scrutiny on their own methods, and there’s a war on drugs on, goddammit. Why should we care about individual rights and freedoms when we’re at war? Jim