How Even a 'Well-Trained Narcotics Detection Dog' Can Be Wrong 84 Percent of the Time
By Jacob Sullum Reason
In my column today, I note that the Supreme Court, ruling for the first time that a drug-detecting dog's alert is by itself enough to justify a vehicle search, discounted the relevance of a dog's track record in the field, saying its performance in "controlled testing environments" is a better measure of reliability. One problem with that position is that such tests are often so poorly designed that it's impossible to say whether the dog is detecting drugs or reacting to its handler's cues. But even well-designed, double-blind tests grossly exaggerate a dog's ability to provide probable cause for searches in real-world conditions. As University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor Richard E. Myers explains in a 2006 George Mason Law Review article, the basic problem is that drugs are always present in the testing situation but rarely present in people's cars. So even a dog that is very good at finding drugs in a "controlled testing environment" will generate a lot of false positives when sniffing randomly selected cars. In fact, Myers says, it is easy to imagine how even a well-trained drug-detecting dog could generate many more false positives than true positives.
Myers concludes that "requiring reasonable suspicion coupled with the dog sniff—whether it is found before the sniff or after—is a simple and practical safeguard for ensuring the presence of probable cause before conducting the search." Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's decision in Florida v. Harris seems to rule out this sensible, reality-based approach.
A 1984 operation in which Florida state police stopped about 1,330 vehicles at roadblocks and walked dogs around them. If one dog alerted, another was brought in, and vehicles were searched only if both dogs indicated the presence of illegal drugs. That happened 28 times, but those searches yielded just one drug arrest. In other words, even when two dogs both signaled the presence of drugs, they were wrong 96 percent of the time.
What is going on when dogs alert and no drugs are found? Police and prosecutors usually claim these are not really false alarms because the dog must have detected otherwise imperceptible drug traces left on clothing, cars, or personal possessions. “It’s a convenient excuse,” says Lawrence Myers, a veterinarian and neurophysiologist at Auburn University who is an expert on dogs’ olfactory capabilities. While dogs can indeed smell traces of drugs that are no longer visibly present, he says, “no one knows how big that reality is.” When police use drug residue as an all-purpose explanation for what appear to be erroneous alerts, Myers says, “the first term that comes to mind involves a male bovine and the ingestion of grass.”
Consider how Christopher Jbara, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, explained an unsuccessful dog-triggered search observed by a Tucson Citizen reporter in 2008. “He said the car had most likely been contaminated on one side of the border or the other and it was likely the driver was not aware,” the Citizen reported. “He said the car’s windshield had been washed by a window washer on the street before crossing the border, and the water used to clean it could have been contaminated with bong water.”
New South Wales Police Inspector Chris Condon tells a somewhat more plausible story. In response to the 2011 numbers indicating that his department’s dogs were wrong four times as often as they were right, he told The Sydney Morning Herald that “80 per cent of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting recent contact with illegal drugs.” The implication is that in most cases where people were searched and had no drugs, they had recently smoked marijuana (by far the most common drug found in successful searches) or been around pot smokers, which is why they smelled suspicious to the police dogs.
But that supposition is impossible to confirm, and it is not even clear what Condon means by “recent contact.” More to the point, the likelihood of actually finding evidence of a crime is the relevant consideration (in Australia as well as the United States) in determining when police may search someone, meaning a dog’s alert can justify a search only if it indicates that drugs are currently present.
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KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: POLICE DOGS
Sometimes the right smell comes from the wrong thing. Many dogs trained to detect cocaine actually react to methyl benzoate, a volatile byproduct of black-market cocaine that is also an ingredient in perfume, solvents, and insecticide. A girl whose purse was searched due to a dog alert during a 1978 sweep of her high school in Goose Creek, South Carolina, turned out to be carrying a small bottle of perfume. Similarly, acetic acid, which is what dogs smell when they smell heroin, is found in vinegar, various food products, and some kinds of glue; the same odor can be emitted by prescription drugs when they are exposed to air. Piperonal, a smell that dogs associate with MDMA, is used in artificial flavors, perfume, and mosquito repellant. Dogs also may have trouble distinguishing the smell of marijuana from the odors of fir and juniper trees.
FOLLOW the MONEY
It should be obvious why a police officer might value a dog that alerts promiscuously, giving him license to search anyone he deems suspicious. It’s a search warrant on a leash. It’s such an enormous back-door entry into search and seizure without a warrant.
A brief filed by the Institute for Justice in Harris highlights another motive: If a dog’s alert justifies a search, it can also justify seizure of property allegedly tainted by illegal drugs. “There are countless examples of police seizing large sums of cash based on nothing more than a positive dog alert,” the brief notes, even though contamination of currency with cocaine and other drugs appears to be pervasive. Since police departments typically share the proceeds from civil forfeiture, they have a direct financial interest in dogs that facilitate it.
Should We Trust Police Officers?
Are police officers allowed to lie to you? Yes the Supreme Court has ruled that police officers can lie to the American people. Police officers are trained at lying, twisting words and being manipulative. Police officers and other law enforcement agents are very skilled at getting information from people. So don’t try to “out smart” a police officer and don’t try being a “smooth talker” because you will lose! If you can keep your mouth shut, you just might come out ahead more than you expected. Related article: 46,000+ American citizens are currently serving time for crimes that they did not commit
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