Cops' Best Friend Criticized

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Dogs are a well respected tool of law enforcement. They find use in tracking escaped suspects and conducting searches for everything from drugs to bombs to dead bodies. But they have one key attribute that they may lose in Illinois – the ability to provide probable cause.

Probable cause is the legal rule that either allows or denies the police the right to search your motor vehicle without your consent. If they have a good reason to suspect you are committing a crime, like transporting illegal drugs, they can search. Without your permission or such a reason, they cannot. This is where the drug dogs come in and why civil rights advocates are taking a closer look – a dog that alerts gives police permission to search, whether you want them to or not. The dog’s nose provides the probable cause.

The problem is that it is almost impossible to tell if a dog is giving you the right answer in the field. A positive alert doesn’t even have to find detectable quantities of drugs. After all, the drugs might have been there sometime previously and just aren’t there now. There’s no way to know just what the dog was smelling.

And a news report now claims almost a 30% failure rate in Illinois. Except that rate just means a dog alerted and no drugs were found, there’s still no way to know if the dog made a mistake or not. According to the story, of 252 calls for a drug dog, 136 led to a warrantless search. Of those searches, only 35 resulted in an arrest.

What’s worse is that if the dog is inaccurate and alerts to please its handler or for some other reason, at least some of the time drugs will be found. So even when drugs are found, you can’t tell for sure if it was the dog that led to the illegal substances or just chance, in much the same way you’d sometimes guess correctly a coin flip if you always said heads.

The other problem police face is that dogs are individuals. You may have one really good dog and several poor performers. They may also vary depending on unrelated factors and they cannot be calibrated against some scientific standard like a radar gun. Since arrest and confiscation of money and goods may rely on “dog testimony,” this bears close scrutiny.

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