Why drug-sniffing dogs in apartment buildings are a bad idea

Earlier this month, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) endorsed a landlord practice that many are concerned violates tenants’ privacy and stigmatizes people who use drugs: landlords in BC are increasingly using drug-sniffing dogs to search the public spaces of residential buildings, allegedly to prevent grow-ops, drug trafficking, and other illicit drug-related activities.

Whereas police officers are constrained in their use of drug-sniffing dogs by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and departmental rules and regulations, property owners relying on private businesses for dog services are held to a far lower standard. This raises obvious concerns around tenant privacy, stability of tenure for people who use drugs, and drug use stigma. It also has the potential to exacerbate the risks associated with drug use by driving it further underground.

We must protect the rights of people who use drugs

Regardless of these gaping concerns, the VPD, in an overly simplistic assessment of the situation, recently applauded the practice, suggesting that it could be an effective deterrent to drug use with additional public health and safety benefits.

“The use of provincially licensed security drug detection dogs in public areas on private property can be beneficial in deterrence alone [and] there are added safety benefits in the use of the dog by locating discarded drugs that have been left behind that could fall in the hands of a small child or ingested by a pet.” ~Vancouver Police

Pivot opposes the practice and, in particular, the VPD’s statement of support. The use of dog services by private property owners in residential buildings is extremely problematic. Far from acting as a drug-use deterrent or an asset to public health and safety, the practice will do more harm than good amidst of housing and opioid crises:

Violations of tenants’ privacy

The VPD has indicated that landlords are deploying service dogs in the “public spaces” of private buildings. While there is typically less privacy in common areas of residential buildings, it is misleading to suggest that tenants enjoy no reasonable expectation of privacy in those areas, as the right to privacy will depend on the nature of the building and its accessibility to the public. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that when a dog signals at the door of a unit, owners will be notified and may use the incident as an excuse to enter tenants’ living spaces more regularly.

Citizen-led law enforcement

Police cannot use a drug-sniffing dog without first having a reasonable suspicion based on objective, ascertainable facts that evidence of an offence will be discovered. They also usually require a warrant to enter a tenant’s unit. These restrictions do not apply to property owners, who rely on private businesses to conduct searches and are limited to a lesser extent under the Residential Tenancy Act. In effect, the practice allows for a side-stepping of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by tenants in the face of law enforcement. Police should not be encouraging private citizens to carry out their own criminal investigations, especially where Charter interests are at stake.

Housing instability for people who use drugs

Despite the fact that many people who use drugs do so without ever disrupting their neighbours or damaging rental property, a landlord could use evidence from a sniffer dog to support an eviction based on a tenant’s illegal activities. Given the housing crisis BC is facing, evictions could lead to homelessness for many marginalized people. It is also likely some landlords will leverage eviction over vulnerable tenants to regulate their behaviour. Given what we know about the disproportionate impact of laws on marginalized communities, it is reasonable to assume that the most vulnerable drug users will be targeted.

Increased drug-related risks and stigma against people who use drugs

It is clear that the risks associated with many illegal activities are all too often compounded or created by problematic laws rather than the activities themselves. We know, for instance, that laws criminalizing sex workers and their clients drive the industry further underground, which in turn puts the health and safety of sex workers at risk. The same is true for the criminalization of simple drug possession: Ramping up prohibition will not address drug use in a productive way—it will push it further into the shadows and force people who use drugs to do so more dangerously. Whereas a person may have a routine of using at home among friends who can supervise, the threats of eviction or invasions of privacy could lead to more clandestine drug use in spaces where health and safety are jeopardized.