Sunday, June 27, 2010

Something Fishy About “Smelly” Drug Bust

Based on sensory science we’re skeptical when law enforcement claims to have discovered hidden caches of unburned pot based on smell alone. So this item on Drudge caught our attention:
‘Overwhelming odor’ leads to $45 million drug bust . . .
He links to this CNN story:
Authorities in southern California said the strong smell of marijuana helped them discover $45 million worth of drugs in the back of a tractor-trailer they had pulled over for a traffic violation.

An “overwhelming odor” led investigators to about 20 tons of narcotics stashed in pallets in the back of the truck, including about 38,000 pounds of marijuana, 2,700 pounds of cocaine and 67 pounds of methamphetamine, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
The CNN story implies the following sequence of events: routine traffic stop, driver’s papers not in order, truck opened for inspection, pot smell alerts officers to contraband.

Sounds like the police in southern California have some impressive olfactory skills. Or do they? Let’s go to the local press coverage. Melissa Pinion-Whitt of the San Bernardino Sun writes
Sheriff’s deputies found a tractor trailer packed with $45 million in drugs during a routine traffic stop in Rancho Cucamonga on Wednesday.
But one sentence later she writes:
The sheriff’s Hi-Intensity Criminal Interdiction Unit stopped a big rig on the eastbound 10 Freeway for a traffic violation at 11 a.m.
Hmmm. Either the Sheriff’s Department in San Bernardino County has its Hi-Intensity Criminal Interdiction Unit making routine traffic stops (“Freeze! You’ve got a broken tail light!”) or they already had reason to suspect this vehicle was carrying drugs.

According to an item on a Los Angeles Times blog, the traffic stop was made by a narcotics officer:
He was driving east on Interstate 10 in San Bernardino County on Wednesday morning when a narcotics officer with the Sheriff’s Department stopped him for a traffic violation and found his paperwork was not in order.
Here at FirstNerve we’re not as credulous as CNN staff writers when it comes to the amazing olfactory powers of police officers—or anyone else, for that matter. Here’s a different way of describing this incident: narcotics unit gets a tip about a drug shipment, stops the vehicle on a minor violation (tail light? two mph over the speed limit?), calls bullshit on the driver’s manifest, gets permission to view the cargo.

Did they smell pot? Maybe. But is this how they “discovered” the contraband? Not too likely.

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