A chemistry professor at the University of North Texas has invented the world's first drug-sniffing car, a vehicle capable of detecting trace amounts of illicit substances in the air and then pinpointing the exact location of the source on a map.
Dr. Guido Verbeck created the prototype by equipping a silver 2015 Ford Fusion Energi hybrid sedan with an advanced mass spectrometer, and tested his invention by setting up a fake meth lab in a mobile home and emitting drug fumes through the vents.
From a distance of a quarter-mile, the car could locate the source of the fumes within a radius of 15 feet, according to Verbeck.
"When certain types of chemical strains are detected, the computer kicks on and starts calculating where that strain is coming from," he said. "Within a matter of minutes, the location is pinpointed within a 4 percent error."
The device's advanced sensors were initially intended to measure highway pollution, and are expected to have various environmental applications, including keeping tabs on fracking companies pumping unsafe chemicals into the ground. But Verbeck and his collaborators at the East Syracuse-based technology firm Inficon soon realized that the invention could be used to precisely determine the source of any unique chemical profile traveling through the air — including those associated with many types of drugs.
Meth, PCP, and synthetic opiates like fentanyl "are the ones that people are actually manufacturing in large quantities," Verbeck said.
His invention relies on an unusually rugged spectrometer, an instrument normally only found inside laboratories because its components are sensitive to physical vibrations and shocks. His model utilizes a pump-shaft that levitates on powerful magnets, preserving stability even on rough roads.
The sensitivity of the laser-heated sensory membrane was so powerful, it had to be calibrated in the pristine air of Antarctica — one of the few places in the world where it would read true zero.
Air enters the unit through an intake fixture in the window. The ability of the device to move is crucial for it to detect the source of a chemical strain in the air because it can measure diffusion across different locations and, after accounting for wind speed and air temperature, triangulate the point of origin.
Finding a smoking joint with the car would be "easy," Verbeck said. He noted that police departments and federal agents are already calling to express interest in the new tool, which could cost anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 once a commercial model is produced. Verbeck road-tripped the car up to DC to demonstrate it to federal agents in March.
"A device like that would be great," Special Agent Melvin Patterson, a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, DC, told VICE News. "Could we conceivably be interested in this? Absolutely. Do we have something like this? No."
But using the car to sweep neighborhoods for synthetic drug labs, grow houses, or small-time users could turn out to be unconstitutional, setting the stage for a legal battle that could ultimately reach the US Supreme Court, according to Aaron Pelley, a Seattle-based attorney who represents marijuana businesses and who has long defended clients from criminal narcotics charges.
Pelley said he expects police departments across the country to begin using drug-sniffing technology to find and bust drug dealers and users as soon as it proves viable — until the courts rule that they shouldn't.
"I expect them to implement it as soon as they can," he said. "The Constitution isn't something that really holds them up. They just kind of proceed until a court tells them they can't."
The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution forbids "unreasonable searches and seizures." But the exact meaning of the statute has been argued about and refined over the decades with the advent of new technologies like telecommunications and thermal imaging.
In a 2001 case, Kyllo v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Department's use of thermal imaging to detect the heat generated by marijuana grow lights inside a garage in Oregon had constituted an illegal search. The authorities used the discovery to get a warrant and raid the house, but the thermal imaging of the home was warrantless. A majority opinion authored by the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia held that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy within their home under the Constitution, which protects them from such technology absent probable cause.
"Reversing that approach would leave the homeowner at the mercy of advancing technology — including imaging technology that could discern all human activity in the home," Scalia wrote. "While the technology used in the present case was relatively crude, the rule we adopt must take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or in development."
But four of the justices disagreed.
"This case involves nothing more than off-the-wall surveillance by law enforcement officers to gather information exposed to the general public from the outside of petitioner's home," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent. "Thus, the notion that heat emissions from the outside of a dwelling is a private matter implicating the protections of the Fourth Amendment… is not only unprecedented but also quite difficult to take seriously."
Getting a clear answer from the Supreme Court about drug-smelling technology could take several years after the first bust.
Professor Charles Fried of Harvard Law School, a specialist in civil rights and the Constitution, said that the court's ruling on ultra-sensitive drug-sniffing technology would be anyone's guess.
"The infrared case is certainly an analogy, and perhaps a close one. That's as close as you get," he said. "But it's not an open-and-shut case at at all. It could go either way."
Fried said his personal opinion was that privacy protections have gone too far in America, and have begun hampering law enforcement from doing its job.
"The complaint that our privacy is being invaded unconstitutionally has become far too common," he said. "It exceeds common sense and has been doing considerable harm to legitimate law."
Special Agent Patterson of the DEA said he doesn't expect legal obstacles to get in the way of the drug-sniffing car. "If it's in the air, it's like the air waves," he said. "They're not owned by anybody."
Patterson also likened it to going through a suspect's trash to look for evidence of a crime.
"Once you put your trash out on the curb, you're giving that trash up," he said. "Anybody can search through that, and it's not illegal."
Dr. Verbeck acknowledged that he had only just begun to grapple with the legal implications of his invention, which he noted was "unprecedented in drug law."
Victor Senties, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department, said that his department would wait to see whether the drug-sniffing car really worked, and for more clarity around the associated legal questions, before deploying a fleet of them on the streets.
"We can't speak to whether or not we'd be interested in it until there have been studies done on it, until it's been tested, and until it's been vetted through the court system for obvious legal reasons," Senties said.
In addition to being mounted within a vehicle, the sensitive mobile mass spectrometer can also be loaded into a backpack or packed into a Pelican case.
For now, the car itself is still too complicated to be used by anyone without an advanced scientific background. But new versions will have a simplified, red-light/green-light interface that can be used by your average beat cop with minimal training.
"It's not as front-end user friendly yet," Verbeck said. "We're working on that."
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