Drug Policy

The Drug Warrior's Best Friend

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Back in 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court said police officers may use drug-sniffing dogs at will during routine traffic stops, it assumed that such dogs can reliably detect and signal the presence or absence of contraband. But as one of the dissenters, Justice David Souter, noted, "the infallible dog…is a creature of legal fiction." Souter cited examples from court cases of dogs with error rates of up to 38 percent. A recent report in The Tampa Tribune suggests he was being generous:

Talon, who worked for the Palmetto Police Department, smelled drugs on every single vehicle during a four-month period and drugs were found less than half the time.

Circuit Judge Debra Johnes Riva said in a ruling that she had no choice but to throw out evidence in a drug case because of that track record.

Yet a different circuit judge later admitted evidence discovered in a car search that was based on an "alert" from Zuul, a dog with a track record very similar to Talon's. Local police were relieved by the latter ruling. The sergeant who oversees the K-9 division of the Sarasota sheriff's office told the Tribune that if other courts followed Riva's reasoning, it could be "catastrophic to the way we've been doing business." If Talon and Zuul are at all representative, the way they've been doing business is to search pretty much any vehicle they please, using the dogs' reactions as a cover for their hunches. Given the animals' accuracy, police might as well replace them with coins or magic eight balls. At least they'd save taxpayers some money.

[via The Drug War Chronicle]