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Appeal court sides with Marysville's drug-sniffing dog
The 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled Monday in favor of Tommy, the Marysville Police Department's drug-sniffing dog, and against two Yuba City residents who received long prison sentences for manufacturing methamphetamine.
Robin Conley Briggs and Darla Ann Stillwell were sentenced in 2010 to 12 and 10 years in prison, respectively, after the dog detected methamphetamine equipment and chemicals in a backpack in the bed of their pickup truck.
In their appeal, Briggs and Stillwell argued that Marysville officers — and Tommy — violated their Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches when the dog put its paws on the side of the truck and "alerted" on the backpack.
Tommy was trained to detect the odors of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin — but not the chemicals in the backpack, Acting Presiding Justice Ronald B. Robie wrote in the 17-page opinion.
Police subsequently obtained a warrant to search Briggs' and Stillwell's residence and found more methamphetamine chemicals and equipment as well as a syringe filled with heroin.
Briggs and Stillwell also argued that a prosecutor failed to prove that Tommy was a reliable search dog, even though he and his handler, Sgt. Chris Miller, are both certified in drug searches, Robie wrote.
The arrests took place after Reserve Officer Matthew Minton stopped the truck the night of May 14, 2009, and questioned Briggs, the driver, because the rear license plate was obscured. Briggs appeared to be under the influence of a narcotic and told Minton he had taken legal methadone.
When Briggs refused to allow a search of the truck, Minton called for Miller and the dog.
"When Tommy locates the source of an odor, his 'passive alert' is to sit and stare at the location where he found the controlled substance," Robie wrote.
When the dog detected an odor from the backpack in the truck bed, he "immediately dropped down into his 'sit/stare' alert," Robie wrote.
"Officer Miller's ability to read Tommy's behavior changes comes with hours of training," the justice wrote.
Briggs and Stillwell also argued the dog's alert did not constitute probable cause to search the backpack.
In the backpack Miller found a metal can of xylene, denatured alcohol, acetone, a 500-milliliter glass beaker and a bottle containing white pills believed to be ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.
The appeal court upheld Sutter County Judge H. Ted Hansen's ruling that the evidence should not have been suppressed.
While out on bail in March 2010, Briggs and Stillwell were arrested in Yuba City on suspicion of transporting drugs for sale.
Briggs — a member of the New Order gang, authorities said — was serving time in February at High Desert State Prison when he was suspected of receiving heroin hidden under the glue strips of letters. Suspected gang members on the outside were arrested but not charged.
The 90-pound Tommy, a Belgian Malinois, was brought from the Netherlands about four years ago and responds to commands in both Dutch and German, said Miller.
CONTACT reporter Rob Young at 749-4784.