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Did the drug-sniffing dog sit or not? Debate leads to man’s acquittal in B.C. fentanyl bust

FILE PHOTO: An RCMP dog handler conducts a sweep in preparation for Royal Visit in Victoria, B.C., Sunday, Sept 25, 2016.
FILE PHOTO: An RCMP dog handler conducts a sweep in preparation for Royal Visit in Victoria, B.C., Sunday, Sept 25, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A man accused of possessing 27,500 fentanyl pills has been acquitted after a B.C. Justice said his charter rights were violated.

The man, Sandor Rigo, was driving on a highway in Chilliwack on April 4, 2017, when he was pulled over for speeding, according to court documents.

READ MORE: $14k in fentanyl seized as part of drugs and weapons bust in London

During the traffic stop, the officer, Cpl. Catellier, said he observed several cellphones, and said Rigo had a strong scent of cologne and that his arms were shaking, the documents said.

That was part of the basis for why the officer detained Rigo for a drug investigation. The officer also said Rigo’s story about why he was in Vancouver didn’t add up.

The officer then brought a drug-sniffing dog, PSD Doods, to the car.

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The officer said PSD Doods indicated that she smelled narcotics, a state called “in odour.” The state of alert is normally shown when the PSD dog sits down; in this case, the officer said she was unable to sit down all the way because a curb was in the way, but he still took it as an indication that she had found narcotics.

The defence, using the testimony of an expert dog handler, argued that the dog wasn’t actually “in odour,” because she didn’t display other signs of it such as wagging her tail. They also argued that since there was a curb in her way when she tried to sit, it wasn’t clear if she was indicating if she found drugs or not.

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A video of the traffic stop only shows one part of the car – and not the part when PSD Doods made the alert to the drugs.

The officer testified the dog displayed other signs of being in odour when it was out of sight in the video.

The car was then towed to the Chilliwack detachment and searched – where officers found 27,500 fentanyl pills in a compartment over the wheel well.

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In his decision, which was made public earlier this week, Justice Michael Brundrett said while there were reasonable grounds for the officer to use a drug-sniffing dog, there weren’t grounds for a further search, and therefore the suspect’s charter rights, specifically of articles 8 and 10, were breached.

(Those articles pertain to the right to be secure against detainment, search and seizure.)

“Corporal Catellier searched the accused’s vehicle with what I have found to be an absence of reasonable grounds to arrest the accused,” Brundrett wrote in his decision.

While the justice said he found that PDS Doods provided a “partial form of ‘alert,’” that wasn’t enough evidence. He suggested the search could have been redone to remove ambiguity and that other evidence showed the dog was “accustomed to being able to fully sit even in tight environments.”

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Based on the suspect’s violation of charter rights, Rigo’s lawyers asked for the seizure of the drugs to be removed from evidence, which it later was.

Brundrett said the case was a serious one, and due to the serious “evils” associated with trafficking fentanyl, he had to take into account the “overall repute of the justice system.”

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