IPFS Vin Suprynowicz

The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

More About: Vin Suprynowicz's Columns Archive


There have long been rumors that police canine officers carry around small quantities of contraband drugs which they can use to contaminate a motorist’s car, causing their dogs to “alert” on the vehicle and thus justifying an otherwise illegal search of the interior and its occupants.

Many have long dismissed such stories as an urban legend.

But what would happen if a group of Las Vegas Metropolitan police officers were actually found to have participated in such a job? Would all be forgiven with a wrist-slap, if they merely said it was “a mistake”?

While officers were in the process of arresting local resident Mark Lilly last July on suspicion of selling harmless legal substances and claiming they were narcotics, an official police spokesman now admits, canine officer David Newton placed real controlled drugs in Mr. Lilly’s vehicle. He has since contended he did so “as a training exercise” for his dog.

It seems pointless to ask whether contaminating active crime scenes is an accepted time, method, or location for conducting a canine “training exercise.” A better question might be what officer Newton was doing carrying narcotics to an active crime scene, in the first place. Has he been charged with possession of those narcotics? Were they of a quantity that would get anyone else automatically charged with “possession with intent to sell”?

(For the record, while dogs can smell marijuana, they can rarely smell cocaine or heroin, purified chemicals which have little if any odor. Rather, they are trained to “alert” on chemical impurities left over from processing, and thus could just as well be trained with -- or fooled by -- a sponge loaded with the appropriate solvent. It’s not clear how many judges who have ruled that such doggie “hits” constitute “reasonable grounds” for a search actually know this, or have ever ordered up any objective, double-blind doggie testing to determine the percentage of false “hits.”)

Police next expect us to believe officer Newton “forgot” he had placed the drugs in the car, whereupon officers Kevin Collmar and David Parker searched the car, found the planted drugs, and charged Mr. Lilly with possession of actual controlled drugs without proper licenses or prescriptions.

To his credit, canine officer Newton subsequently filled out a notice to the prosecutor that he himself had possessed and planted the drugs, and that the charge should be dropped.

But that notice somehow “never made it to the prosecutor,” contends Las Vegas Police Deputy Chief Mike Ault, who oversees internal investigations.

Officers Parker and Collmar then proceeded to testify against Mr. Lilly at his preliminary hearing, failing to mention to the prosecutor (or the court, presumably) that the possession charge should have been dropped since the drugs had been planted by police.

Mr. Lilly was ordered to stand trial in District Court. This generally entails considerable expense and inconvenience. Charges were not dropped until Officer Jeffrey Huyer notified the prosecution of the real circumstances.

Internal Affairs investigators concluded Parker and Collmar “neglected their duty” -- an awfully polite way to put it.

On Feb. 17, the often toothless Las Vegas Police Citizen Review Board found some backbone, recommending these officers be fired because they had filed a false report and lied in court.

But apparently those aren’t firing offenses in the department of Sheriff Bill Young. Instead, Sheriff Young said Thursday he will suspend these two officers without pay, since the drugs were not placed in Mr. Lilly’s vehicle “intentionally.”

Is the sheriff now contending the drugs fell out of officer Newton’s pocket accidentally? That he was actually planning to distribute them at a retirement party down at the precinct house later that night? Then what was all that hoo-hah about “conducting a training exercise”? And -- again -- what possible legitimate purpose could a canine officer have for carrying his own narcotics to a live crime scene?

Did we just forget to take our “dumb” pills today?

Joining in this bizarre defense of police behavior, Las Vegas Police Protective Association President Dave Kallas opines “I am at least glad that the department realized the Citizen Review Board recommendation was extreme and certainly not reasonable.”

Mr. Lilly, whose car was auctioned off after it was impounded, insists “It was no mistake. They knew what they were doing. It was a setup.”

Sheriff Young’s wrist-slap punishment “raises serious questions about the integrity of the entire criminal justice system in Southern Nevada,” says Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada.

That’s an understatement.

Though now that I think of it, Mr. Lilly was lucky. Imagine what would have happened to him if he’d been found sleeping in a shanty off Industrial Road late at night; or sleeping naked in his own apartment after police had arrested his girlfriend and seized her house keys; or walking down Rainbow near Tropicana armed only with a basketball, or kneeling down in a front yard near Rainbow and Russell, unarmed, surrendering to police, with his hands behind his head.

Metro and its union have fought against any punishment for the officers who killed Las Vegans in all those circumstances, in recent years.

How many other drug busts have officer Newton and his trained pooch helped facilitate? How many Nevadans have served time after one of these little “training exercises”? How large a stash of contraband drugs does the officer possess, where did he get it, and what’s it for? How much will taxpayers end up paying to settle the promised lawsuit from the falsely accused Mr. Lilly?

Sheriff Young and his investigators apparently don’t care to ask.

Case closed.