Drug dogs fail the sniff test

Springfield K9s find drugs in 25 percent of searches

Flip a coin and pick a side. Repeat 50 times. Chances are, you’ll guess the coin toss more often than drug-sniffing police dogs in Springfield found contraband during traffic stops in 2012.
    Traffic stop data reported by the Springfield Police Department shows the police found contraband in 25 percent of searches prompted by a drug dog’s alert. By comparison, guessing a coin toss has a theoretical 50 percent chance of being correct. Despite a 2011 state law that mandated training for drug-sniffing police dogs, Springfield’s canines continue to come up empty in most searches. One Springfield defense attorney believes the dogs represent an erosion of freedom, but the police who work with the dogs say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
    According to data collected from the Springfield Police Department by the Illinois Department of Transportation, Springfield police searched 51 vehicles following alerts from drug-sniffing dogs in 2012. The officers found contraband in only 13 of those searches, a hit rate of just 25 percent. Before 2012, state law didn’t mandate IDOT to collect statistics on drug-sniff searches from police agencies, so data from prior years may be inconsistent and may not contain every use of drug-sniffing dogs in traffic stops. Still, the searches that were reported by the Springfield Police Department for past years show the hit rate has never reached 40 percent, and is often much lower.
    In August 2011, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law requiring drug-sniffing police dogs to undergo rigorous training and obtain certification under a nationwide standard known as SWGDOG. The law mandated that law enforcement agencies in Illinois which wanted to use drug-sniffing dogs had to get the dogs certified through an approved instruction program by June 1, 2012, and repeat the certification every year.
Deputy chief Bob Markovich of the Springfield Police Department says his department has been certifying its dogs through an impartial, nationwide group called the United States Police Canine Association for the past 20 years. The Springfield Police Department runs its own state-approved training program for its six narcotics-detecting dogs and one explosive-detecting dog.
    Markovich says the data collected by IDOT is flawed for several reasons. For example, he says the reporting form itself skews the data toward false positives because the drug sniff search becomes a catch-all for other types of searches when the data is reported. Additionally, a traffic stop initiated by one agency may involve another agency’s dog, so not all of the false positives reported may have come from dogs handled by Springfield police.
    Still, Springfield defense attorney Mark Wykoff says dog sniff searches are eroding the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.
    “The Fourth Amendment has gone to the dogs, literally and figuratively,” he says. “One of the worst things I’ve seen in my criminal law practice is the erosion of fundamental constitutional protections and outsourcing them to dogs.”
    Wykoff explains that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case arising from Illinois that a citizen does not have an expectation of privacy regarding scents that waft from his or her vehicle. That means dog sniff searches don’t violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches. Additionally, he says courts have also ruled that a drug-sniffing dog’s record of finding contraband in the field doesn’t matter as long as the dog has a demonstrated record of finding contraband during certification.
    “The court held that as long as the state can demonstrate the dog is properly trained and certified, that’s good enough,” he said. “Now all they’re giving us is an eight-and-a-half by 11 piece of paper saying the dog is a wonderful sniffer.”
    Patrol officer Ron Howard, who is the K-9 trainer for the Springfield Police Department, says his dogs are constantly trained and recertified to keep them in top form. They undergo 560 hours of training to be certified, with 16 hours of training each week and annual recertification by USPCA.
    Wykoff also raises concerns about dog handlers overtly or even inadvertently signaling dogs to alert, as well as incentivizing dogs to alert by offering them treats.
    Markovich counters that the dogs used by Springfield police never receive treats for alerting, and he says his officers who handle the dogs are trained to avoid signaling the dogs to alert.
    “If it’s a lack of training, an officer handling a dog can entice a dog to alert,” he said. “That’s why we go through an outside agency for the training.”
    Still, Wykoff has other concerns, saying some drug dogs are taught to alert to legal chemicals used to dilute drugs for distribution. He says the use of drug-sniffing dogs also affects the Sixth Amendment right of an accused person to confront his or her accuser.
“How do you confront a dog?” Wykoff said. “Unfortunately, the courts have held the way we can cross examine a dog is to do it through the handler because they’re a team. The handler is the spokesperson for the dog. But if the dog handler was cuing the dog, the dog can’t say ‘The reason I alerted is that my handler was pulling on my chain harder than he usually does.’ You’re urinating into the wind when you cross-examine a handler because the handler is going to stick to the state’s attorney’s script.”
    “The dog talks through its training records,” Markovich said in response, adding that drug-sniffing dogs often alert to lingering smells of drugs even after the drugs are gone. “A dog’s reliability is shown through training, because in training, I can confirm where there’s a positive alert.  On the street, there’s no way to know that there’s never been drugs there.”

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