In WTNK, I questioned whether the olfactory abilities of police officers live up to the deference shown them by courts in search-and-seizure drug cases. Empirical work by Richard Doty and others casts serious doubt on one typically extravagant claim: that unburned marijuana is detectable by nose when wrapped and stashed in a car trunk.
Nevertheless, the “in plain smell” doctrine is now law in many states: the odor of pot, as perceived by a police officer, is sufficient to establish probable cause for a warrantless search of a vehicle. Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, an “alert” behavior by a trained drug detection dog also suffices.
Bringing dogs into the equation doesn’t help matters. A recent study suggests that dogs respond to subtle, unintended cues from their handlers that can result in “false alarm” alerts.
Radley Balko now examines some data from the Illinois State Police K-9 Unit and comes to a disturbing conclusion.
Even giving this dog credit for the cases in which the officer found only [drug] residue, over this 11-month period, the dog had about a 28 percent failure rate. Which means that nearly three of the 10 times the dogs alerted provided probable cause for a warrantless search of a motorist’s car without a warrant, the motorist was completely innocent.What’s that, Lassie? It gets worse?
Include the “residue” stops, which didn’t produce a large enough quantity of illicit drugs to be measured, and the dog’s error rate climbs to 74 percent. And these are all cases in which the dog’s handler presumably was suspicious enough to conduct a sniff search in the first place.Bad girl!
Before you smack Lassie on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper, consider the tactics employed by officer Michael Reichert of the Collinsville (Illinois) Police Department, and his canine sidekick. Radley Balko has the story here, but you really should watch the nifty little video by Terrance Huff that accompanies the story. It gives you the full gamey flavor of what happens when questionable legal doctrine combines with questionable use of scent dogs and questionable policing in a chickenshit town like Collinsville, Illinois.