Medford's top cop at ferreting out illegal marijuana sales has a nose for drug work.
She'll spend hours checking package after package shipped through overnight air carriers in search of bundled cash tainted with just the slightest scent of marijuana, regardless of how creatively the money is concealed.
The Mail Tribune takes a three-day look at the increasing use of civil forfeiture by federal law enforcement agencies to seize the profits and property of people accused of abusing the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
Sunday: How the civil forfeiture process works, the arguments on both sides regarding its fairness, the impact it has made and what happens to the seized money and property.
Today: Local drug fighters use a police dog to sniff incoming packages for cash, but people don't have to be charged with crimes to lose their property if it doesn't pass the sniff test.
Tuesday: Both police and medical marijuana advocates say changes are needed to stop drug traffickers from hijacking the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
She's been responsible for the seizure of tens of thousands of dollars in suspected drug profits shipped from Eastern states, where contraband cannabis grown under the cover of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program fetches up to $7,000 a pound, and her reward is little more than a few minutes with her chew toy.
Appropriately named Kilo, the Medford Police Department's drug-sniffing Labrador retriever is often the first line of defense in law enforcement's attempts to stem the trafficking of marijuana tied to the OMMP.
Her discoveries of cash shipped through the mail and delivery services such as FedEx are often the cornerstone of federal civil forfeiture cases, a powerful tool being used increasingly to sting illegal dealers by taking away their profits — even when the suspected dealers are never charged with a crime.
"You can trick me, but you can't trick the dog," says Medford police Lt. Brett Johnson, who heads the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement task force targeting marijuana shipments. "The dog's nose is good."
But is it infallible?
Eugene defense attorney Brian Michaels doesn't think so.
Michaels is representing at least two medical-marijuana cardholders who had packages of money seized after they were discovered by Kilo.
The cases, Michaels says, are built primarily on Kilo's detection and boosted by "inferences and innuendo," such as money that just happens to be packaged the way drug dealers typically do it, coupled with the fact that the recipients are among the more than 58,000 Oregonians who are part of the OMMP.
"All you have is a dog sniff," Michaels says. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's no option for the dog being wrong."
Michaels represents Donna Dickson, a Grants Pass woman with a medical-marijuana card who has filed a claim on $17,980 the federal government seized with Kilo's help.
The cash was sent to her in a FedEx overnight box discovered by Kilo during a routine sniff Jan. 27 at the shipper's Medford airport facility, according to a court affidavit.
Kilo "hit" on a heavily taped package bearing Dickson's address, leading to a search warrant that revealed the cash, the affidavit states. The return address was for a business at an Astoria, N.Y., apartment complex, with no apartment number listed, and a disconnected cellphone number was included on the package, the affidavit states.
Inside the heavily taped parcel was a smaller box, similarly sealed, which contained cash in several layers of vacuum-sealed plastic, with what appeared to be dish soap between the layers, according to the affidavit.
"If you're legitimately sending money, why are you trying to conceal it?" Johnson says.
Police and federal prosecutors concluded the money came from illegal marijuana sales, making it ripe for forfeiture.
"There are folks who have a legitimate trail of their money," Johnson says. "You can see where it came from. How many times has someone sent you $10,000 through FedEx or the U.S. postal system?"
The affidavit does not mention any interviews with Dickson, nor do Michaels' court filings explain where the money came from or why it was mailed to Dickson from New York.
Dickson declined a Mail Tribune request for an interview.
In court filings, Michaels argues that no crime has been tied to Dickson or the money. He argues in his filing that previous drug cases have shown evidence that 75 percent of money circulating in Los Angeles is contaminated by drug residue.
Michaels asserts that the only mention of Dickson in the affidavit about the cash seizure is that she had an OMMP card.
"When they find out someone has a medical-marijuana card, they want to open their packages," Michaels says.
In a response motion, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Westphal argues that all the nefarious aspects of the shipped cash, coupled with Kilo's alert to the package and Dickson's medical-marijuana status, "strongly supports the belief that she has access to marijuana for distribution."
None of the government's beliefs is proof that Dickson committed a crime, but the circumstances of the case are questionable enough to support seizure of the cash under the rules of civil forfeiture.
In April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a claimant in a nearly identical case.
Four-year-old Kilo has been trained to alert on five illegal drugs, including marijuana, and trains weekly with her handler, Medford police Officer Rob Havice, a master handler certified by the California Narcotics Canine Association.
The pair work more than just FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service. Federal civil forfeiture cases provide details about how Kilo and other trained dogs in Southern Oregon sniff for drug-contaminated cash at bus stations, in vehicles and in people's pockets.
"If we had train service for passengers here, we'd sniff there, too," Johnson says.
Kilo's role is key to disrupting the flow of black-market marijuana grown under the guise of OMMP, Johnson says. Growers with OMMP cards can cultivate their crops openly under Oregon law. But if they cross the line into illegal trafficking, they expose themselves to law enforcement at least twice — when they ship their pot out and when money gets shipped back, he says.
In cases where Kilo doesn't find the outbound pot but does detect the inbound cash, law enforcement agencies have increasingly turned to federal civil forfeiture to take what police believe are the proceeds from illegal sales of marijuana grown under OMMP.
"We try to hit them coming and going," Johnson says. "You can hurt them by seizing their dope. You can really hurt them by seizing their money."
Traffickers' best hope is that their cash shipments come through Medford on one of Kilo's days off.
"Drug work's a dog-and-cat game, and right now, the dog's doing good," Medford police Chief Tim George says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.