I-40 Search Raises New 'Policing For Profit' Questions

(Story originally created Nov. 10, 2014)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A traffic stop along Interstate 40 is raising new questions about your constitutional rights. Among the questions: what happens to your right to say "no" to a search when police are looking for cash?

The traffic stop occurred west of Nashville, along a stretch of interstate in Dickson County that's become well-known for a controversial practice known as "policing for profit."

For three years, our investigation has documented how drug interdiction agencies in that area target out-of-state drivers. Those agencies fund their operations under a state law that lets them seize cash from drivers based on the suspicion that it's drug money.

"It seems like Nazi Germany, you've got to have the paperwork and the proper authorities to come through Tennessee," said San Diego resident Ronnie Hankins.

Hankins and his wife Lisa had been on the road for days back in May, after attending a family funeral in Virginia, when they got stopped on the westbound side of I-40. It came right after they passed an interdiction agent with the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force.

Lisa was driving.

"I told her we are going to get pulled over," Ronnie remembered.

"What made you think he was going to stop you?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Because we had out-of-state license plates and my wife is Hispanic."
After separating Lisa from her husband, supposedly so he could write her a warning ticket for a traffic violation, dashcam video shows that the agent began repeatedly questioning her about what was inside the car.

Then, he had a favor to ask.

"You say there's not anything illegal in it. Do you mind if I search it today to make sure?" the officer asked.

Lisa responded, "I'd have to talk to my husband."

She told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "I just feel like he was harassing me, you know, wanting me to say yes that he can search my car."

The agent continued, "I am asking you for permission to search your vehicle today -- and you are well within your rights to say no and you can say yes. It's totally up to you as to whether you want to show cooperation or not."

So why not say yes?

"I mean there was no reason for him to search my car," Lisa said.

The interdiction agent told her that he was asking "because I do believe that you are not being honest with me."

The agent didn't believe their story that they had been to a funeral for Ronnie's grandfather, even though a quick search of the Internet would have proved they were telling the truth.

"You have to either give me a yes or no," he continued. "I do need an answer so I can figure out whether I need a dog to go around it or not."

Lisa recalled, "I was getting upset because he kept on asking me over and over. I said you have no reason to search my car."

That's when a second agent brought out a drug dog to sniff around their car.

"If that dog does not hit, they don't get to search your car?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"No," Ronnie answered, "there is no probable cause."

But that's exactly what happened.

The interdiction agent told Ronnie, "We've ran a dog, and the dog's alerted on the vehicle. So we are going to be searching it, OK? And whatever is in there we are going to find in just a second."
Ronnie was furious.

"There's never been any drugs in the vehicle and never will be," he insisted.

It turns out that the man whom the task force stopped knows a thing or two about law enforcement himself. He's a federal police officer at the Marine Corps Air Station-Miramar in San Diego.

Ronnie began arguing with the task force officer.

"You are lying about the dog hitting on the car. The dog didn't hit on the car either. You guys are drug task force. You are out here harassing me and my wife when I am just coming back from a funeral," he said.

The agent responded sarcastically, "That is exactly how I would expect most police officers to act."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ronnie, "You are convinced that they cued that dog to hit?"

"Yes, 100 percent," he said. "There is no doubt they cued that dog."

If you look in slow-motion, the dog passes an open window on the passenger side with no alert. The handler then leads the dog around the front. Then, on the driver's side, he turns his body around and gestures toward the window. Suddenly, the dog sits. That's the alert.

"Just like a child, you can make a child say anything you want. You can make a dog do whatever you want to if you train them the right way," Ronnie explained.

"And you are convinced that's what happened here?"

"Yes."

The two agents can be seen on the dashcam video discussing the allegation.

"He says we're lying about the dog alert," the first officer said.

The dog handler replied, "Was he not sitting there and saw the same things we saw?"

For almost an hour, the two agents searched the Hankins belongings.

"Man, it ought to be here," the first officer said.

"Can't make it be here," the dog handler answered. "Ain't that what you told me before?"

"Yeah."

They even tore apart part of the dash of Lisa's new car.

"That really pissed me off when he started ripping everything out of my car," Lisa said.

"You felt violated?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Yeah, I felt violated. He didn't want to hear it."

And when Ronnie insisted there were no drugs, the agent confided he wasn't really expecting any.

"Well, I'll be honest with you, with you going this direction, I wouldn't think you'd have drugs in the car -- you would have a large amount of money," he said.

Ronnie's reaction: "I knew right now they were looking for money to fund their operations."
"And what made you think that?" we asked.

"Because they're not worried about the drugs, they were worried about the money."

When agents couldn't find anything, they wrote up a report to justify the dog's alert by saying they found "marijuana debris" on both the driver and passenger floorboards.

We showed the report to the couple.

"That's just them trying to cover their backside," Ronnie said.

He noted that the drug dog passed by the open passenger window and did not alert.

The truth, they said, is that all agents saw inside the car was grass from the cemetery where they had buried Ronnie's grandfather.

"It makes me angry that someone would attack my character because not only do they attack my character, but that could cost me my job," Ronnie said.

As for her experience, Lisa Hankins said she knows one thing for sure: "I know I won't never drive in Tennessee again. That's the last time."

The dog handler emphatically insisted, through his boss, that he did not give that dog any sort of command to alert on that car.

The Hankins said they're still suspicious.

While the agent thought they looked nervous, the Hankins said they were tired and jittery after being on the road for days. And Ronnie said, after two tours of duty in Iraq, that's just the way he is.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates took the dashcam video to a nationally respected respected expert. He believes the dog may have inadvertently been cued to hit on their car.

Back to NC5 Investigates: Policing for Profit
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