MdTA police launch probe of K-9 unit

The Maryland Transportation Authority says it has launched an investigation into its police K-9 unit after the dogs' head trainer alleged problems with the drug-sniffing hounds.

The trainer said in a deposition that he had discovered deficiencies in the training of one dog, and that police had tried to pass off fake credentials for the animal in a court case after officers could not find the original records.


The allegations have emerged in a battle over $122,000 seized last fall at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The money — which authorities believe is connected to drug trafficking, according to court documents — was taken from a man at the airport in September. The man's wife, Samantha Banks, says the money was her life savings and was to be used in a real estate deal. Banks is fighting in court to get it back.


Authorities have not found drugs, but say the narcotics dog, Falco, gave a positive response when it sniffed the money. Among the evidence turned over to Banks' lawyer was a certificate that was supposed to show the qualifications of Falco and his handler. Neither Banks nor her husband has been charged.

But in a deposition in July, one K-9 trainer said the certificate was created after the dog's handler could not find the original, and another trainer said in an affidavit that he produced the certificate on his home computer under instructions from the handler.

An MdTA spokesman said the agency is taking the allegations seriously. Spokesman John Sales said MdTA police are starting an investigation and have assigned additional commanders to watch over the K-9 unit.

"We hold ourselves to the highest levels of professionalism, compliance and integrity," Sales wrote in an email. "With that basis we are proceeding with due diligence regarding these allegations."

Banks' attorney wrote in court filings that federal prosecutors "obscured the truth" about the document. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office said there was no wrongdoing.

MdTA police have responsibility for law enforcement at BWI, the port of Baltimore, and the state's tunnels and bridges. The K-9 unit took over responsibility for detecting explosives at the airport from the state police in 2001 and began using them for detecting drugs three years later.

The four drug-sniffing dogs are certified by the MdTA police. The explosives dogs are certified by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and are not implicated in the case, Sales said.

When prosecutors turned the certificate in question over to Banks' attorney, they described it in a letter as a "reproduction."


In a subsequent deposition, attorney C. Justin Brown asked K-9 trainer Michael McNerney if it was "an authentic certification."

"No," McNerney said.

"Is this a fraudulent certification?" Brown asked.

"I believe so," the trainer said.

Another trainer, John McCarty III, said in an affidavit that he was directed by the dog's handler to create the certificate on his home computer using Microsoft Word. McCarty said he believed the certificate had no value because there was no underlying paperwork to show the dog had been trained.

McNerney said in the deposition that he told the U.S. attorney's office that he thought the document was fraudulent and that he talked to his superiors about it.


Brown wrote in court filings that the two prosecutors assigned to the case had "obscured the truth" about the certificate, and decried "the lengths to which [MdTA Police] and the U.S. Attorney's Office went to mislead the claimant and gain advantage in litigation."

The U.S. attorney's office has not responded to Brown's filings in court. But in a statement, spokeswoman Vickie LeDuc said there was "no intent to deceive anyone about the certification."

The training records of drug-sniffing dogs serve an important legal role, one which was underscored last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that an alert by a drug dog should generally be considered grounds for police to carry out a search as long as officers can show that the dog had been properly certified or trained.

Sales said the transportation authority now has current certifications and training records for its four drug-sniffing dogs but plans to recertify all its dogs and have an independent body audit the K-9 unit. There were no gaps in any of the other dogs' records, Sales said.

In the money case, Falco was not responsible for discovering the cash, but Sales said transportation authority police are working with prosecutors to determine whether any other cases are affected. James Wyda, the head of the federal public defender's office in Baltimore, said he is also keeping a close eye on the proceedings.