Who's the Alpha? Nevada K9 Drug Unit Lawsuit Is About Pack Leadership, Control


A Reno, Nev., attorney filed a lawsuit last week against the state on behalf of three officers involved with the highway patrol's K9 drug interdiction unit, alleging the methods used by the state to conduct searches were designed to falsely detect drugs based on handlers' cues to the dogs.

Whose training passes the sniff test?

The 104-page lawsuit (pdf) appears to be the culmination of a five-year battle over the direction of Nevada's K9 drug detection program, where disagreements between the canine trainers and the head of the Nevada Highway Patrol allegedly resulted in a battle for domination similar to what you might find in a pack of … well, you know.

Anybody reading the news coverage of the lawsuit hoping that this is some sort of smoking gun that would bring about formal recognition from law enforcement that drug-detecting dogs are a problem: sorry to disappoint. That's not what the lawsuit is about, though police abuse is certainly part of the complaint. Rather, this lawsuit pits one type of dog training vs. another, with the plaintiffs claiming their training method is more effective and doesn't resort to handler cues, and resistant leaders of Nevada Highway Patrol engaging in significant amounts of harassment in order to direct the agency to a different, rival training method.

In fact, the man put forth as the villain of the lawsuit, Chris Perry, former chief of the Nevada Highway Patrol and now director of the state's law enforcement agencies, didn't even want a state K9 operation, the plaintiffs claim. When the state reestablished a K9 program in 2007, Perry resisted and was overruled.

"My read on Perry is that upset him," said Ken McKenna, lawyer for the three plaintiffs. "He was jealous, angry that someone proved him wrong. He just had that stuck in his craw right from the beginning."

Nevada brought in retired Los Angeles Police K9 trainer Donn Yarnall (one of the plaintiffs in the suit) to restart the program, using his own training techniques that rely on harnessing the natural prey drive by certain types of dogs to track down drugs. Yarnall, who helped found LAPD's K9 programs in the 1970s, claims this training does not operate on the same reward system as some other methods, methods that lead to the problem of police dogs looking for cues and trying to please their police masters (as former Reason editor Radley Balko thoroughly documented), resulting in false positives.

According to the suit, years of harassment and retaliation by various Nevada Highway Patrol officers and leaders followed, with computer records deleted, work assignments manipulated, pay held up, necessary expenses rejected, and files stolen. The suit claims Perry even stole an oversized novelty donation check for $100,000 from Walmart that was to be presented to the K9 program and attempted to have it deposited into the Nevada Highway Patrol's general fund.

Stuck with the K9 unit, Perry and his allies then attempted to push the training toward the direction Yarnall opposed, methods he (and the lawsuit) says leads to the false cueing used to justify illegal searches and seizures.

"There are cases here in Nevada where dogs alert by the false cueing, and there are no drugs," McKenna said. "This allows officers to abuse the search and seizure laws. They can search anybody they want anytime they want to based on cueing the dogs."

The lawsuit alleges Nevada officers are deliberately using this system and described incidents where the plaintiffs witnessed other K9 handlers deliberately cueing the dogs in order to justify searches of packages at a FedEx facility. (The officers also allegedly poked holes in the packages to make it easier for the dogs to smell for drugs, a technique that was exposed in a Las Vegas television news program.)

Ultimately, after Perry was promoted to director, he declined to renew Yarnall's contract and ended the training Yarnall promoted. The suit filed by Yarnell and two other officers connected to the K9 program has 13 claims, among them several First Amendment violations, defamation, conspiracy, fraud, and racketeering in connection to the dog cueing used to justify searches and seizures. They've even filed a Fourth Amendment claim on behalf of the victims of the searches (McKenna agreed such a claim was unusual, as none of the plaintiffs are claiming that they have been victims).

Just to make it clear, though, this suit is not about stopping drug dog searches. What the plaintiffs want, McKenna said, is for Perry to step down as director. The lawsuit brags about how many drugs and millions in cash and property the K9 unit seized under Yarnall. Where that money went to is also under dispute. According to the lawsuit, Yarnall was regularly told the fund from seizures was depleted, but nobody would tell him where the money had gone to.

"We suspect and it's part of our allegations that the funds were misappropriated," McKenna said.

A representative from the Nevada Attorney General's Office said the office was reviewing the complaint and would respond in court.