NEW MEXICO - The case of Timothy Young made national headlines in 2012 when New Mexico police anally probed him in search of drugs (no contraband was found).
His ordeal was the result of a false positive alert by a drug-sniffing police dog. Incredibly, the same dog was involved in a case involving another New Mexico resident that resulted in forced rectal exams that uncovered no drugs. That case ended with authorities paying a $1.6 million settlement (Young's case is still pending).
Although presented as impartial and infallible, it turns out that such dogs are not only often poorly trained, they are frequently wrong.
Cops, explains Andy Falco, a former K-9 handler and officer for the Anaheim Police Department in California, "will often motivate their dog or cue their dog to alert when there's absolutely nothing there." A 2011 analysis by the Chicago Tribune of police departments in the greater Chicago area found that vehicle searches initiated after dogs alerted failed to turn up drugs or drug paraphernalia 56 percent of the time. Other studies find false positives as high as 74 percent and 80 percent.
Yet in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that as long as police say the dog is trained or accurate, "a court can presume that the dog's alert provides probable cause to search" people, vehicles, and property.
"If [police] have a dog that will alert on cue," says Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum, who has written extensively on the issue, "that's a very useful tool to have to search people you have other grounds to think are suspicious." Sullum stresses that there are no uniform or reliable certification standards for training drug-sniffing dogs. While convinced of dogs' potential usefulness, Falco agrees that police dogs are generally poorly trained and handled.
Indeed, in the wake of such appalling cases such as Young's in New Mexico, Falco worries that drug-sniffing dogs will be completely discredited. "I've seen cases where people have trained their own dogs in their backyards and then taken it to work as a drug dog. I've seen that happen," he says. "We're going to lose them because we're not using them the way we're supposed to."
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Reason.com/September 16, 2014