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By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
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By Stephen Lemons
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These days, there are enough trained canines to allow for rotating shifts. Still, the job is fairly intense for the dogs. They can focus on their work for only 15 or 20 minutes at a time before needing a break; their sense of smell is diminished when they become overheated. Despite the boost in dog teams that has led to increased drug busts, it's possible to pass through the checkpoints without ever seeing a dog.
At least three dogs are working on the day New Times visits the I-8 East checkpoint, but the animals rest more than half of the time. Even when the dogs are ready, sometimes the line of vehicles becomes too long and has to be "flushed," as the agents put it. All but the most suspicious autos are waved through quickly. Otherwise, commerce and the free flow of traffic on the highway would be disrupted, agents say.
One K9 handler walks far down the shoulder of I-8, using his dog to sniff out small bags of drugs and paraphernalia often discarded by approaching drivers or passengers. He finds nothing on this day, but it's common to find such contraband near the checkpoint, says Schappell, the federal agency's Yuma spokesman.
Schappell wonders why a Border Patrol sign announcing the checkpoint about a mile up the road doesn't warn all drug users to dump their stashes. But he fails to realize that most people have no idea their vehicles are about to be sniffed by a dog, with major consequences if the animal smells anything alarming.
The I-8 East checkpoint does have a sign declaring, "Working Dogs Ahead." But it's next to the checkpoint booth and the dogs, making it useless as a warning.
A lean, gray Belgian Malinois suddenly appears happier, its attention focused on a gold Chrysler 300. It tugs firmly at its short, leather leash, and its handler motions to another agent, who asks the 20-something driver to pull over beneath a shade tent. The young man sits on a folding chair for a few minutes, looking nervous. As the Malinois bounces through his car, he leans forward with his head in his hands.
But the dog finds nothing, and driver is released.
As far as the agents are concerned, a K9 is never wrong: The man must have had drugs in or around his car recently that left enough lingering molecules to alert the dog.
To Yuma County, the Border Patrol's dogs look more like geese — as in the ones laying golden eggs.
They've brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past few years. Until a change was made last fall, fines ranged between $750 and $1,400 for the small-time marijuana violators picked up at the checkpoints. Now, fines usually run $400 — but that still works out to be a lot of money considering there have been more than a thousand cases a year.
And considering that federal agents and their dogs do most of the work.
Yuma County officials insist it's not about the money. They say it's a black-and-white issue. Marijuana is illegal.
"It's the law, and we like enforcing the law," says Roger Nelson, chief deputy Yuma County attorney for criminal matters. "We're not going to apologize for it, and we don't think there's anything wrong with having drug-sniffing dogs at an immigration checkpoint."
Though the Border Patrol is a federal agency that's using its resources to do the work of Yuma County authorities, Schappell says it "can't turn a blind eye" to the casual users picked up because of the extra dogs.
The issue of whether the federal Border Patrol officers near Yuma should be busting small-time drug offenders is a subject made raw over the recent death of a comrade.
In mid-January, Agent Luis Aguilar was run over in the sand dunes west of Yuma by a Mexican national driving a Hummer loaded with drugs.
"My opinion is that the grandma coming through with the ounce of marijuana — how she got the marijuana is from the Hummer that ran over Luis Aguilar," Schappell says.
The Yuma Sector's spokesman finds it ironic that media focused far more on the January 22 arrest of entertainer Lil Wayne, which happened two days before a memorial service was held for Aguilar. Media calls poured in from all over the world about the rapper, but reporters weren't very interested in the dead agent.
Lil Wayne, whose real name is Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., was riding in an RV with 11 friends when a dog targeted his vehicle at the I-8 East checkpoint. A subsequent search turned up about a quarter-pound of pot, an ounce of cocaine, 41 grams of Ecstasy, and a handgun.
Interest in what happened to Lil Wayne has been running so high that the Yuma Superior Court plans to air live coverage of his upcoming trial (no date for which has been announced) on its Web site.
Another big catch apparently flew under the media's radar: Officials say that in 2006, a dog at the I-8 East checkpoint hit on the tour bus of the Crosby, Stills and Nash band, resulting in an arrest for hashish. It wasn't one of the famous musicians who got nabbed, but a member of their entourage.