Articles Posted in Drug Dogs

iStock_000009680929XSmall.jpgA police officer only needs to believe he or she has smelled marijuana, in order to restrain a person through stop or arrest. An officer can perform an invasive search of the arrested individual, even if the basis for arrest is a probable cause like marijuana odor. If an officer detects marijuana odor from a vehicle, the officer does not even need to arrest in order to conduct a stop and search. If an officer suspects that marijuana odor is present in a room, the suspicion could supply probable cause for a more extensive search than would otherwise be acceptable.

To examine how reliable the often-used officer smell test actually is, researchers replicated real-life circumstances experienced by police and analyzed the accuracy for humans to discern marijuana odor in these situations. The researchers based the replicated circumstances on common court cases where officers justified their searches by claiming to have smelled marijuana. The results of the empirical studies cast severe doubt on the reliability of officer marijuana smell-tests. In the first study, the researchers recreated a situation in where, during a normal traffic stop, an officer would say he detects the odor of packaged marijuana, through the driver’s window, located in the trunk of a car. The study discovered that individuals in this officer’s position would not be able to accurately detect marijuana odor, due, at least partly, to the entrenching presence of diesel fumes.

In the second study, researchers analyzed a situation where officers would claim they discerned marijuana odor through chimney fumes of diesel exhaust originating from a marijuana grow room. The study found that individuals in these officers’ position would be incapable of detecting marijuana odor when such odor is mixed with diesel exhaust fumes in a ratio modeled from a actual growing situation in an marijuana grow room. This failure to reliably detect marijuana was nearly absolute, even in regards to individuals who are familiar with marijuana odor.

iStock_000009680929XSmall.jpgPolice often use drug-sniffing dogs to find the “probable cause” that allows police to search cars without a warrant. However the chances of a drug dog falsely alerting police, which often leads to searches that would otherwise be unconstitutional, seems shockingly high. In a study, published by UC Davis researchers in the journal of Animal Cognition, it was shown that trained drug dogs falsely alerted to the presence of drugs hundreds of times in areas where drugs were in fact not present and were not likely to have been present in the past.

This study suggests that drug dogs are not just responding to smells when alerting, but in a large part responding to unjustified beliefs held by drug dog handlers that drugs are present. Because drug dogs are extremely responsive to subtle cues given by their handlers, a drug dog is likely to alert that drugs are present regardless of whether it does or does not actually smell drugs.

Drug dog experts point to the fact that drug dogs and their handlers are at times poorly trained which explains this lack of accuracy in drug detection. A possible reason for the poor training is the almost total absence of national standards for drug dog training.

Further analysis conducted by the Chicago Tribune, using three years’ worth of drug dog data, discovered that drug dogs were wrong more often than they were right when alerting to police that vehicles contained drugs or drug paraphernalia. Also troubling, the Tribune study showed that if a driver was Hispanic, drug dogs were more likely to falsely alert on him or her. Anti-discrimination groups have asserted that drug dogs often alert as a response to the racial biases of the drug dog handlers which leads to disproportionately large amounts of minorities being searched for illegal drug use.

In Texas, police frequently use trained dogs to assist in finding evidence against those suspected of committing crimes. However, a 2010 decision from a Texas’s highest criminal court showed that Judges do not always think evidence obtained from the assistance of trained dogs is enough to find a criminal defendant guilty. In that case, the court overturned a criminal conviction because the primary method used by police to identify the criminal defendant, a trained dog identification, was seen as inadequate to find a person guilty.

Perhaps the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas understands that trained dog assistance alone is not reliable enough to justify a criminal conviction. But despite drug dog inadequacy, drug dogs are still allowed to be used to search a person’s vehicle. Any evidence discovered from drug dog searches can be used as evidence at trial, unless the accused presents a convincing argument to not allow use of such evidence. Consulting an experienced attorney who specializes in drug dog cases is a recommended course of action when one is faced with an arrest involving a police dog.
Continue reading