Drug detection (sniffer) dogs have been used in public spaces across Australia to identify individuals who are in possession of drugs. The dogs have been predominately used in public spaces such as entertainment venues, festivals and public transport sites.
The use of the dogs to identify people for public searches has lead to spirited public discussions regarding the implications of the use of drug detection dogs for civil liberties and harm minimisation.
A NSW ombudsman’s report in 2006 found that only 1 in 4 people searched after a drug detection dog had indicated that the individual was in possession of an illicit substance, actually had an illicit substance in their possession. In the overwhelming majority of instances where a person was searched and found to be in possession it was a non trafficable amount (i.e. a pill or amount of cannabis for their own use.)
A major criticism of the use of drug detection dogs in public places is that this can lead to people engaging in risky behaviour to avoid being detected with drugs. The EDRS survey (2007) indicated that more than a third of participants (39%) had attended an event in the previous 6 months where they knew sniffer dogs were going to be in attendance. Of this group over 70% of survey participants reported taking some form of precaution to avoid detection , including:
- Hiding drugs better,
- Consuming drugs before the event,
- Not taking drugs to the event,
- Purchasing drugs at the event, or
- Using different undetectable drugs.
Lets consider some of the drawbacks to the different methods people have tried in order to avoid detection by sniffer dogs.
Hiding drugs better
Many people have come up with different strategies to hide drugs from sniffer dogs such as using masking scents, or vacuum sealing their drugs to avoid detection. The effectiveness of sniffer dogs is entirely dependent on the level of training the dog has been given. Drug detection dogs for instance are trained to detect drugs when a masking agent such as curry powder or pepper has been used.
Consuming drugs before event
Thirty four percent of participants in the 2007 EDRS who reported hearing in advance of the event that sniffer dogs would be present, chose to consume their drugs prior to the event. The implication of this choice is that the participants would then be intoxicated while travelling to the event, possibly heightening the risk of harm. (See Drugs and Driving). Some people have also taken larger amounts of drugs in one dose prior to the event rather than pacing themselves over the course of the event which can also heighten the risk of harm.
Purchasing drugs at the event
While purchasing drugs at the event may mean that you can avoid detection by sniffer dogs there are some possible drawbacks inherent in purchasing from an unknown source including getting ripped off or purchasing a drug of unknown quality.
Using different drugs
In a review of the use of Drug detection dogs in NSW carried out by the Ombudsman’s office, a number of respondents suggested that people may start consuming more dangerous substances such as GHB in an effort to avoid detection. The move to GHB was attributed to the belief by users that drug detection dogs were unable to detect GHB.
What should I do if I am approached by a sniffer dog? (Don’t pat the doggie)
If a dog sits down next to you, the police can but will not always search you. It can be helpful if you know your rights. As a guide:
- Stay calm and be polite. You could be fined or arrested if you swear at the police, so don’t give them an excuse.
- Be cooperative and let the police search you. But ask them why they are searching you. And ask them for their name, rank and station.
- Try to remember where (location) and when (time of day) police search you. This info might be important if you decide to make a complaint.
- If you have drugs on you…. The law says you must give your name and address to police, if the police discover drugs on you. But you don’t have to say anything more, if you don’t want to. This is your right to silence.
- If you don’t have drugs on you… If police ask for your name and address, ask them whether you have to. If police say you don’t, then don’t…because they will put that info on their database and might use it against you later. If police say you have to give your name & address, then it is better to cooperate and make a complaint later if you need to.
What happens if they find drugs?
O.K. The answer is it depends. Nobody can say what will happen because it really varies.
- You may get a warning and have your drugs seized
- You may receive a caution and then provided that you comply with the terms of the caution no conviction will be recorded
- You may be fined or you may get charged with an offence and possibly receive a criminal conviction.
Outcomes at the scene depend on the substance, the amount, your behaviour, the discretion of the police officer and the country or state that you live in.
If drugs are found and you are charged the outcome will depend on all of the above as well as prior convictions and the discretion of the court. Do not underestimate the implications of a criminal conviction, it can really stuff up things like jobs and travel in the future.
If you are charged get professional legal advice ASAP.
*This fact sheet is for information only and should not be relied upon as legal advice.