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Marysville police dog takes sniff out of crime
Tommy hasn't let success go to his head.
Since coming on board with the Marysville Police Department in December 2007, the 90-pound Belgian Malinois — trained to detect the odors of cocaine base, cocaine powder, methamphetamines, marijuana and heroin — has been racking up assist numbers faster than Steve Nash.
Now an appellate court decision upholding the value of Tommy's nose in helping uncover drug evidence has been circulated for use by criminal attorneys across the state.
"It was an unusual case," Police Chief Wally Fullerton said of the routine traffic stop in May 2009 that led to 12- and 10-year sentences, respectively, for Robin Conley Briggs and Darla Stillwell of Yuba City.
"The expert testimony (of Marysville K-9 officer Chris Miller) was instrumental in making this case law in California," the chief said.
The arrests took place after a reserve officer stopped a pickup and informed the driver his rear license plate was obscured.
Officers later reported that Briggs appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
When he refused to allow a search of his truck, Tommy and Miller — Tommy's handler — were called to the scene.
Tommy's alert to the backpack led to a search that produced an extensive array of chemicals used to produce methamphetamine.
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.
In their appeal, Briggs and Stillwell argued that Marysville officers — and Tommy — violated their Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches. The dog's alert did not constitute probable cause to search the backpack, they said.
And though Tommy had been trained to detect the odors of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin, he had not been trained to detect the composite chemicals, they said.
Tommy, born and raised in the Netherlands, finished his police training in California and has been tested and certified as a drug search dog every year since coming to Marysville. His handler, Miller, has undergone similar testing.
"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," reads an excerpt from 3rd District Court of Appeal Acting Presiding Justice Ronald B. Robie's 17-page opinion, issued in July.
"Officer Miller's ability to read Tommy's behavior changes comes with hours of training," the opinion reads.
Recently, Tommy's case, and its potential use in helping decide future drug search cases, has been established via the Internet.
"This is a good case on the use of drug-detection dogs," reads a note by a retired San Diego District Attorney who posted details of the case earlier this month on legalupdateonline.com.
An attorney directory — HG.org — features details of the case and its conclusion as a cautionary tale for criminal defense attorneys.
Meanwhile, Tommy, 7, continues to assist Marysville police apprehend criminal suspects and search for evidence.
In the coming months, police are expected to find and train his heir-apparent.
A local company recently donated $5,000 to the Marysville Police Department for the purchase of a second dog.