KY Racing Panel Seeks Search/Seizure Ruling

Rules committee votes to seek opinion from state attorney general.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s rules committee has voted to seek an attorney general’s opinion on whether the full commission has the legal right to conduct searches of vehicles and living quarters such as tack rooms and dormitories on racetrack property.

During a meeting Dec. 22 in Louisville, Ky., the three-member rules committee heard that a review of racing regulations being conducted by the staff of the General Assembly’s Legislative Research Commission had concluded that the commission lacked legal authority to seize contraband found during such searches on racetrack property. The LRC staff also questioned whether the KHRC had the right to even conduct such searches without prior consent.

The KHRC rules committee consists of three attorneys: Ned Bonnie, who chairs the panel; attorney and horse owner Burr Travis; and attorney and horse owner Tom Conway. Conway is the father of Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, whose office will be asked to render an opinion on the commission’s legal right to conduct searches on the grounds of racing associations licensed by the KHRC.

Travis, who participated in the meeting via telephone, said most federal laws pertaining to constitutional rights of individual who consent to searches of vehicles and property without warrants are not applicable to highly regulated industries such as horse racing.

“There are a number of case laws that searches in a closely regulated industry is not limited by the warrant requirement,” Travis said. “Common sense dictates the warrantless search would be constitutionally permissable.

“To say or even believe that we couldn’t search and seize contraband...would be ludicrous,” Travis said.

LaTasha Buckner, with the office of legal services in the Public Protection Cabinet, which advises the KHRC on legal issues, said the LRC staff questioned the seizure authority of the commission because it is not specifically provided for in the state statutes regarding searches of living quarters and vehicles on association grounds. She said there is also a question of whether the consent provided by a licensee to allow KHRC personnel to conduct a search is voluntary, since consenting to the search is included in the license application.

Rather than try to amend the regulations to conform to the LRC staff objections, the rules committee voted to take the issue to the attorney general for an opinion. Meanwhile, the KHRC has been directed to continue to operate the way it has in relation to search and seizure.

“I think we ought to take them to the mat...” Bonnie said of the LRC opinion. “We are not prepared to stop seizing (contraband found during searches) and are prepared to take on the LRC on this issue. This is a highly regulated gambling industry. That should be an exception.”

Before discussing the search and seizure opinion from the LRC, the rules committee voted to consider the matter in executive session, citing the fact that it pertained to pending litigation. Two reporters present questioned whether closing the discussion to the public complied with the state’s open meetings law. While the reporters were out of the meeting room, the committee members discussed whether to close the meeting and, after about 20 minutes, decided to conduct the meeting in public.

it was never stated what litigation was involved in wanting to close the meeting. In a high profile case, veterinarian Rodney Stewart and trainer Patrick Biancone received lengthy suspensions after substances were seized during a search of the trainer’s barn at property owned by Keeneland racecourse and of the vet’s truck.

The stewards suspended the veterinarian for possession of multiple prohibited substances, mislabeled medications, and other matters, according to the report. He was suspended for four years for possessing alpha cobra toxin and one year for possessing the substances carbidopa and levodopa, for a total of five years. Stewart had also received additional suspensions for medication labeling violations and additional violations which were to run concurrently with the five-year suspension.

The substances were found during a June 22, 2007 search and seizure of items in a barn at the Keeneland training center occupied by Biancone, who served his suspension and has resumed training. Stewart has filed suit in Franklin (Frankfort, Ky.) Circuit Court seeking to overturn his suspension.