Orange DA refuses drug cases from VISD

Interquest dog courtesy of Interquest's Facebook page

At a Vidor Independent School District board meeting Thursday, March 27, VISD board trustees voted unanimously to approve the renewal of a contract with Interquest Detection Canines of Southeast Texas but not without some discussion of what some attendees said is a failure of the Orange County district attorney to prosecute students whose illegal contraband is found by the private company’s detection dogs.

Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Nancy Smith presented the measure for approval during the meeting. She said, as a former middle school principal, she believes in Interquest and has seen the company’s canines discover not just drugs, but all types of contraband including weapons.

Board trustee Mike Kilmer asked Smith if VISD files charges on students found to be in possession of illegal contraband. Smith replied affirmatively, but when Kilmer went on to question whether or not the Orange County District Attorney John Kimbrough has ever prosecuted any of those cases, he got a different answer.

VISD Police Chief Jerry Parker said no.

“What in the heck is that all about?” Kilmer asked.

Parker said the Orange County DA “will not take cases” based on evidence gathered “from private drug dogs.” He said the Orange County Sheriff’s Office could not provide random searches at local schools because the dogs brought into schools must be “passive” and Orange County’s deputy K-9 unit is cross-trained in tracking and is a “bite dog.”

“Our DA is not doing his job,” Kilmer lamented.

Parker cited Texas Education Agency policy as to why the district could not allow “bite-dogs” into the schools, but The Examiner could not verify this with the TEA. Parker later cited the need for caution in bringing an aggressive K-9 in school. 

For his part, Kimbrough argued in e-mail correspondence that he would prosecute cases with properly gathered evidence.

“We will prosecute any case, including a student found with drugs, if the evidence is legally obtained and there is sufficient evidence,” Kimbrough responded. “We cannot determine if a case is legally sufficient unless it is submitted to us. We assess the legality of a search according to the law, not office policy.”

When asked whether or not evidence collected during school searches by detection canines owned by the private company would be considered “legally obtained,” he said it depends.

“Each case stands on its own merits,” Kimbrough answered. “Obviously, the track record and reliability of the particular dog and handler would have to be evaluated by the judge in deciding whether to allow the evidence in court. Potentially, a search by a private canine could be legally admissible in a criminal trial. It depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case. Many private canine operations fall short of the criminal court standard.”

He said he has worked with police K-9s in the past and credited a former OCSO K-9 deputy with collecting evidence leading to numerous prosecutorial triumphs.

“The notion that ‘police K-9s’ are too aggressive is utter nonsense,” Kimbrough asserted in correspondence. “For years, Orange County had one of the best canines in Southeast Texas and it was a ‘passive-response’ dog. The handler took it into elementary classrooms all the time and kids would pet him, pull his tail, etc. No problems ever with the dog being aggressive. We had many, many successful prosecutions and asset seizures with this dog.”

OCSO Chief Deputy Clint Hodgkinson said there is a single K-9 unit at OCSO and affirmed that deputy dogs serve a dual purpose, being cross-trained to detect contraband and to track.

“They are trained to bite if a suspect runs or anything, not to hurt them but to immobilize them if needed,” Hodgkinson explained.

He said additionally OCSO does not have the resources to perform random searches at all the school campuses in Orange County and the dogs utilized by private companies are “equally as capable” as police K-9 units due to extensive training programs.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Rod Carroll said it does not matter to him whose dog detects contraband when investigating a case.

“If a dog walks by and hits on a locker, let’s just say there is marijuana in it, the school has a right to search the locker,” Carroll explained. “If they find marijuana or something else, they call us. We are not going out to the school because the dog found something. We are going to the school to investigate because the school officials found something.”

He said JCSO would arrest a student in possession of illegal contraband found by any means as long as the identity of the student in possession of the contraband can be accurately established.

In a private interview, VISD Police Chief Parker said he stands by his statement relating to the DA’s lack of action against VISD students found with contraband by detection dogs owned by private companies. He said Kimbrough told him in no uncertain terms that he would not prosecute cases based on evidence obtained by the private detection canines because he does not know the dog’s record, the company’s record or the handler’s records and did not have time to vet every dog and every handler on every case.

“I have seen quite a few cases sent back for lack of evidence, and that is what he told me,” Parker said. “He won’t prosecute, and that’s the bottom line.”

Interquest Detection Canines co-owner Mike Ferdinand said his dogs have been credited with gathering evidence leading to numerous convictions across the country. The company operates in 21 states and works with approximately 1,600 school districts, according to Ferdinand. He said it is “highly uncommon” for a prosecutor to refuse a case based on the fact evidence was gathered by Interquest canines, and that he is baffled by statements from VISD officials asserting the Orange County DA fails to prosecute cases in which evidence is gathered by the company’s detection dogs.

“That is a real disappointment,” Ferdinand said. “Our canines are certified, probably better than police dogs. We have been operating for 26 years. The reliability of our dogs is unchallenged.”

Ferdinand said Interquest canines are trained to detect drugs, including commonly abused prescription drugs like Valium, Oxycontin, Hydrocodone and more, and other contraband, including anything gunpowder-based.

“I believe schools appreciate our program,” Ferdinand said.

Board trustee Kilmer said he does appreciate the program and called on the Orange County DA to file criminal charges when students are found with illegal contraband.

“We have an accredited police department,” Kilmer said. “We have an accredited canine detection company. We believe in the VISD police department. We stand by these detection dogs. We believe in them. We have never had a false positive hit from these dogs. We want our DA to prosecute these cases.”

The contract renewal in which Interquest agrees to provide 20 half-day visits from August 2014 through June 2015 for $240 per visit, a $20 per visit increase from the previous contract, was approved unanimously by the board at the March 27 meeting. The previous agreement with Interquest is still in place until it expires later this year.

VISD board trustee Mike Marion and Superintendent Dr. Jay Killgo both said the detection dogs are excellent “deterrents” to students who might bring illegal contraband on campus.