Asset Forfeiture Report: Sidebar




Canine Sniffs Yield Unreliable Evidence for Forfeiture

In forfeiture cases, police officers and prosecutors often rely heavily on the presence of trace amounts of cocaine detected on cash by canines—especially where the only other evidence of wrongdoing is an officer’s subjective opinion of “suspicious circumstances.”[1]  The value of such evidence for establishing a plausible connection to drug activity is seriously in question, however.
Famously, in 1985, the Miami Herald asked 11 prominent citizens to supply a $20 bill for trace analysis.  Ten of the 11 bills tested positive—implicating future-Attorney General Janet Reno, future-Governor Jeb Bush, a Catholic archbishop and a former Miss America winner.[2
Scientists, in studies stretching back to 1987, have consistently found that a third to 97 percent of all bills in circulation are tainted by cocaine.[3]  The latest study, presented in August 2009 to the American Chemical Society, found cocaine on 90 percent of 234 banknotes from 18 U.S. cities.  The findings, arrived at by means of a new method of gas chromatography, confirm numerous previous studies.[4]
In 1987, a Drug Enforcement Agency scientist found that one-third of all money at the Federal Reserve Building in Chicago had traces of cocaine.  The study recommended “that trace analysis of currency for general enforcement or seizure be stopped.”  
The law enforcement community has yet to follow that advice.  Judges, however, on occasion demand more than a canine sniff test to establish a drug connection.  For instance, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter has noted “the pervasive contamination of currency by cocaine,”[5]  as have many lower courts.[6]  Enough do not, so canines are still widely employed to conduct searches that are practically guaranteed to return a positive result.[7]


[1] United States v. $124,700.00, 458 F.3d.

[2] Curriden, M. (1993, August). Courts reject drug-tainted evidence; Studies find cocaine-soiled cash so prevalent that even Janet Reno had some. American Bar Association Journal, 79, 22.

[3] United States v. $639,558.00, 293 U.S. App. D.C. 384, 955 F.2d 712, 714 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 1992); Curriden, 1993.

[4] Biello, D. (2009, August 16). Cocaine contaminates majority of U.S. currency; And it’s not just the U.S.: Canada, Brazil have a preponderance of the drug powder on their bills, too. Scientific American. Retrieved September 16, 2009, from; Karch, S. (1997). Tainted money supply. Forensic Drug Abuse Advisor, 9(3), 20-21; Oyler, J. Darwin, W. D., & Cone, E. J. (1996). Cocaine contamination of United States paper currency, Journal of Analytical Toxicology 20, 213-216; Negrusz, A. Perry, J. L., & Moore, C. M. (1998). Detection of cocaine on various denominations of United States currency. Journal of Forensic Science, 43(3), 626-629; Jenkins, A. J. (2001). Drug contamination of U.S. paper currency. Forensic Science International, 121, 189-193; Curriden, 1993.

[5] Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 410-412 (2005) (Souter, J. dissenting).

[6] United States v. $242,484.00, 351 F.3d 499, 511 (11th Cir. 2003), vacated on other grounds; United States v. $53,082.00, 985 F.2d 245, 250 n.5 (6th Cir. 1993); United States v.$80,760.00, 781 F. Supp. 462, 475 n.32 (N.D. Tex. 1991); United States v. $5,000, 40 F.3d 846, 849 (6th Cir. 1994); United States v.Carr, 25 F.3d 1194, 1214-1218 (3d Cir. 1994) (Becker, J. concurring in part and dissenting in part); United States v. $639,558.00, 293 U.S. App. D.C. 384, 955 F.2d 712, 714 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

[7]United States v. $124,700.00, 458 F.3d. 822 (8th Cir. 2006).

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