Friday, October 12, 2012

The Good Wife 2012 and Dragnet 1969: TV Sometimes Gets Police Dogs Right

Jack Webb, Harry Morgan, and Ginger in Narcotics: DR-21
Not since Jack Webb introduced much of America to a drug sniffing dog in an episode of Dragnet that aired in January 1969 has there been such an informative episode regarding drug canines in a TV drama as occurred on The Good Wife on September 30, 2012. It appears to have taken 43 years for a television depiction of police dogs to equal the level of what was first shown on Dragnet.  

The Dragnet episode, Narcotics: DR-21, described how a dog was trained to recognize marijuana at the Los Angeles Airport.  For additional photos from the episode, and a detailed description of the program, see the The Hannibal 8, October 17, 2014. The crime in the episode involved two obviously gay men (this was just before Stonewall) who were accused of selling marijuana to high school students.  Searches of their apartment consistently turned up nothing until the dog was brought in, with Jack Webb as handler, and scratched at a light switch.  Behind the switch were found several bricks of marijuana.  America was on notice that drug dogs would stop the flow of drugs once every police department had one, but the police were on notice that they had to establish the reliability of the dog for issuance of a search warrant.   

The drug dog in The Good Wife is no longer a pure force for good.  The handler, an Illinois state trooper in Madison County, cues his dog to alert, denies that he is profiling the occupants of the car, is hoping to search the car for currency rather than drugs, and is doing this to get cash that can be forfeited and put to the use of the county. It is nothing short of highway robbery by law enforcement, showing that the promise Jack Webb gave us so long ago has never been achieved.

It is probably no accident that the episode is making these arguments less than a month before the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two drug dog cases, the first to come before the Court in seven years.  Issues in those cases include cueing, training, what records are required to be given to the defense, and what is needed to establish probable cause in several situations. 

Traffic Stop

Woven through other plot strands in The Good Wife episode, titled “I fought the law,” is a traffic stop that occurs on Interstate 55 as three of the drama’s characters, Alicia Florrick and her two children, are returning to Chicago from visiting a college that Zach, the son, is considering attending.  Zach is driving the car, his sister shotgun, and mother, Alicia, in the back seat asleep. 

The trooper, Officer Robb, pulls them over, and saying he cannot hear Zach’s answers over the traffic noise asks him to get out of the car so he can explain the reason for the stop.  Alicia tries to join the conversation, which is taking place in front of the patrol car, but is told to wait.

When Robb is finished with Zach he speaks to Alicia and says that Zach seemed nervous, making him wonder if there might be drugs in the car.  She asks if they are being profiled.  “You saw two kids driving at eight in the morning.  You thought maybe drugs?” He denies this, then says he has a K-9 in his car and asks if Alicia would mind if he led the dog around the car.  She asks what he would do if she did mind.  We skip a few seconds to the dog being led around the car. 


The stop is being videotaped by a dashboard camera in the patrol car.  Portions of the video are replayed at various points in the episode and Zach eventually posts it online, supplemented by his own commentary and spliced in with scenes from horror movies.  The video shows Officer Robb encouraging his dog at a level that convinces a trainer who later watches it that Robb was forcing false positives.  The alert takes place at the front of the car, so dash cam video does not actually capture the alert, only the sound of Robb loudly encouraging his dog.  In the offices of Lockhart & Gardner, the trainer demonstrates how this can be achieved with her own dog, which she does by tapping on a file box until the dog alerts. “My dog has just alerted to your file box.”

Going back to the actual traffic stop, Zach is arrested for recording his conversation with the officer on his iPhone, an apparent violation of the Illinois criminal code.  

As the episode progresses, Alicia brings in various members of the firm of Lockhart & Gardner to help her fight on her son’s behalf.  When she tells fellow associate Cary Agos that Officer Robb said the dog probably alerted to marijuana shake on the floor of the car, Agos, a former prosecutor, says, “Shake is what they say when they don’t find anything.”  (As a fan of the series, my opinion is that the actor who plays Agos, Matt Czuchry, has more precisely captured the ambitious associate, the up-and-coming litigator, than anyone else in the cast.) 

When Alicia tells her husband, Cook County District Attorney Peter Florrick, about the incident, Peter attempts to strong-arm the DA of Madison County to drop the charges, expunge the record, and have Officer Robb call Zach and apologize.  This almost happens but Alicia learns from Zach, who has been researching traffic stops in Madison County on the internet, that Robb and other police are targeting northbound cars on I-55. 

Targeting Currency in a Drug Corridor

“They’re not trying to stop drugs,” Alicia explains to the judge at a preliminary hearing.  “They’re trying to confiscate the money made from these drug sales.”  This explains why stops are being made on the northbound but not the southbound side of I-55.  Stopping cars on the southbound side would more likely produce drugs, but 90% of the stops are on the northbound side.   

The judge agrees with Alicia that these are serious charges and the Madison DA decides to pursue the matter against Zach and informs Peter Florrick that his own officers’ stops on the corridor must produce ten times the revenue in Cook County that is being raised from highway forfeitures in Madison County. 

The stalemate between the two county DAs is broken when Zach posts the dash cam video online.  One of the background sources for the episode is revealed when Kalinda, Lockhart & Gardner’s in-house investigator, refers to the posting as being “smart, like Breakfast in Collinsville.” The video goes viral, eventually getting more than half a million views on YouTube.  The Breakfast in Collinsville video made by Terrance Huff after his stop in Collinsville, Illinois, has, as of October 11, logged over 420,000 views.  The actual video contains much of the dialogue adapted by the scriptwriters for The Good Wife episode.

In the final scene, Officer Robb calls up Zach and apologizes, telling him that the charges will be dropped and his record expunged.  Beside Robb as he makes the call is the Madison County DA, who apparently has decided that pursuing the matter will bring unwanted attention to the methods of Madison County law enforcement.  Zach has his revenge. 

Drug Corridors

Profiling is known to occur along drug corridors, although it is usually racially based.  Austin Sarat and Jonathan Simon note:

“The highway that runs from Miami, Florida, to Maine [Interstate 95] has been labeled a drug corridor by law enforcement for years. At various points along it, local, state, and sometimes federal agents have sought to apprehend cars moving drugs or drug money. The result, it has been alleged, is the profiling of black drivers who are pulled over with minimal or no legal justification in the hopes of winning consent to search their cars. Even when no drugs are found, large sums of cash have been seized as drug money.”

Sarat and Simon, Beyond Legal Realism? Cultural Analysis, Cultural Studies, and the Situation of Legal Scholarship, 13 Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 3 (2001). 

Some drug corridors, such as U.S. Route 40 near Carney’s Point, New Jersey, have had multiple seizures with cars going in specific directions.  See U.S. v. $32,310, 1988 WL 16927 (D.N.J) (three individuals were driving a car with South Carolina plates westbound on U.S. Route 40 in Carney’s Point, Salem County, New Jersey when they were stopped for a speeding violation; search produced currency, marijuana, and paraphernalia; amount of currency was “roughly equivalent to the street value of a kilogram of cocaine” and “was wrapped in a highly peculiar manner”; currency was subject of forfeiture action; one passenger was charged with resisting arrest and possession of a controlled dangerous substance while two others were charged with obstruction of justice; the stop was described as occurring in a “known drug corridor”); U.S. v. $87,375, 727 F.Supp. 155 (D.N.J. 1989) (pillow case full of “small denomination bills” totaling $87,375 found by flashlight in back of car defendant, a Columbian national living in Miami, was driving westbound on U.S. Route 40 in Carney’s Point, Salem County, New Jersey; after transportation of suspect to station, pillow case was hidden in locker room chest of drawers; dog alerted to chest of drawers; the stop was characterized by the federal district court in New Jersey as occurring in a “well-known drug corridor”). 

Other highways have been identified as drug corridors, including I-77 in North Carolina (U.S. v. Wai Lun Ng, 2007 WL 3046215 (W.D.N.C.)); I-35 in Minnesota (U.S. v. Lara, 2007 WL 3144998 (D.Minn. 2007)); I-20 in Georgia (U.S. v. $19,054, 2012 WL 4094361 (M.D.Ga. 2012) involving a currency seizure); and I-29 between Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Sioux City, Iowa (Lindstad, A., State v. de la Rosa: Creating a de Minimis Exception to the Fourth Amendment, 49 South Dakota Law Review 313 (2003-2004)). 

The Eighth Circuit has concluded that merely driving along a drug corridor is a relevant factor in determining the legality of a stop. U.S. v. Blaylock, 421 F.3d 758 (8th Cir. 2005)

Stops of Vehicles Going in One Direction Only  

That drugs and money often move in opposite directions has been noted by legal analysts:

“I-94 is well-known to those in law enforcement as a drug corridor where couriers, frequently using rental cars, transport money to Chicago and drugs back to Detroit. After learning that Smith's driver's license had been suspended and that her passenger had been previously arrested for cocaine possession and weapons offenses, the officer searched the trunk of the car and found the backpack containing $180,975.”

Yeaton, D., Civil Forfeiture—Exclusionary Rule—Broadening the Use of Illegally Seized Evidence in Forfeiture Proceedings. In re Forfeiture of $180,977, 734 N.W.2d 489 (Mich. 2007), 86 University of Detroit Mercy Law Review 59 (Fall 2008).  Note that the direction here relative to Chicago is opposite to that suggested as happening in The Good Wife.

Mary Cheh reported that along the I-95 drug corridor in Florida, drug agents choose to stop southbound vehicles in the belief that they contain forfeitable cash, while ignoring northbound vehicles in the belief that they contain drugs, of no value to the agents. Cheh, M.M., Can Something This Easy, Quick and Profitable Also Be Fair? Runaway Civil Forfeiture Stumbles on the Constitution, 39 New York Law School Law Review 1, 6 (1994)

Forfeiture as a Source of Government Revenue

In a report posted by the Institute for Justice in 2010, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture, the authors noted that along a major drug corridor between Shreveport, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas (U.S. Route 59), none of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit in Texas who had been stopped were arrested for, much less convicted of violating drug laws.  Most were black.  “Public records requests revealed that the District Attorney used some of the money [confiscated] to buy a $524 popcorn machine, $195 for candy and $400 for catering. Seized funds also went to the local Chamber of Commerce, a youth baseball league and a local church.”

In Collinsville, where Terrance Huff’s stop occurred, the municipal budget for 2010 was aided by $313,272 in forfeitures. 

Law review articles have argued that civil forfeiture has been an objective of traffic stops.   See Bernstein, A., The Representational Dialectic (with Illustrations from Obscenity, Forfeiture, and Accident Law), 87 California Law Review 305 (March, 1999), stating: “Drug kingpins buy their way out of incarceration through forfeiture-based plea bargaining, while impoverished low-level 'mules' go to prison.”  For this Bernstein cites Blumenson, E. and Nilsen, E., Policing for Profit: The Drug War's Hidden Economic Agenda, 65 University of Chicago Law Review 35, 110, n.285 (1998).


When Burt Prelutsky wrote Narcotics: DR-21 in the late 1960s, much of America had never heard of narcotics detection dogs and the evidence provided by their alerts was only beginning to be used in criminal prosecutions.  The dog that appeared in the episode was one of the first drug dogs in the United States, a Belgian shepherd named Ginger.  I discussed the importance of the episode in Police and Military Dogs.  Many television shows have used dogs since, even going so far as to explain their functions, but all cases I can recall were intended only to get some sympathy for a victim or to provide an explanation of how a conviction was obtained when the plot was too poorly constructed to provide another reason.  Seldom was any research, legal or forensic, involved. 

The scriptwriters of The Good Wife, Robert and Michelle King, have presented us with the downside of a police method that has been too easily accepted by the public and sometimes the courts as guaranteeing a solid forensic result, almost as secure as DNA testing.  The problem when objectives other than fair administration of the law become a priority is not with the dogs, as is said in the episode.  The problem is with the handlers and their supervisors.  We must hope that the Supreme Court was watching.  

Additional Note. For a recent case with overtones of the Collinsville incident, see Miller v. Vohne Liche Kennels, Inc., 2013 WL 3177434 (S.D. Ind. 2013).  After an alert and a fruitless search at a traffic stop in Plymouth, Indiana, Kevin Miller sued Vohne Liche Kennels for inadequately training drug-detection dogs, and American Working Dogs United, Inc. for improperly certifying them. Motions for summary judgment were granted to the defendants.   


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