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JULY 14 - JULY 22, 2015

Error by Bomb Sniffing Dog Points Up Problematic Nature of Searches

JULY 14, 2015

Police doing a sweep of your neighborhood took with their well trained dogs who smelled something inside your house (it was the goulash) and gave the signal.
Police enter your home without a warrant searching for bombs or drugs on the dog signal.

Niagara County sheriff’s deputies Wednesday afternoon responded to a call involving an eastbound Amtrak train on its way from Toronto to Niagara Falls that was stopped and evacuated after a Niagara County Sheriff’s bomb sniffing dog mistakenly smelled explosives on a piece of luggage.

After the dog smelled explosives, Amtrak Police took over the investigation. Two more dogs were brought in and, after a delay of around two hours, the train was allowed to proceed.

“Fortunately I wouldn’t say this happens often, but we do have procedures in place to handle it when it does happen,” an Amtrak spokesperson said.

The use of dogs to detect the presence of explosives or, more commonly in the U.S., drugs, is controversial for a number of reasons.

To date, there are no required national standards for certifying a dog as a narcotics/bomb sniffing dog, or anything else.  Each company that engages in training dogs can set their own standards and certify according to those. And despite a long history of using canines for such purposes, there is a remarkable lack of scientific data to back up any assumptions about their effectiveness.

A recent study by Stanford University based on three years’ worth of evidence from an Illinois police precinct found that “false positives” accounted for 56 percent of the canine alerts. Another study put the accuracy rate at 62 percent.

But a study done by a team of researchers at UC Davis testing the reliability of drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs found an 85 percent failure rate.

The team assembled 18 police dogs and their handlers and gave them a routine task: go through a room and sniff out the drugs and explosives.

But there was a twist. The room was clean. There were no drugs or explosives.

In order to pass the test, the handlers and their dogs had to go through the room and detect nothing.

Out of 144 runs, that happened only 21 times, for a failure rate of 85 percent.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police had "probable cause" to search your vehicle if a police dog detects drugs, typically by sitting, digging or barking.

That is an extraordinary power - officers working without dogs need "a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime" for such searches. Mere suspicion is not enough, and criminal cases resulting from searches that don't meet the "probable cause" standard can be, and are, tossed out in court.

Under the civil forfeiture laws, American citizens who haven’t even been charged with any wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and homes. Many such cases are pending before courts all across the country, and more than a few of these are based on “probable cause” provided by a dog.

Wednesday’s Amtrak incident cost little more than inconvenience to the few passengers riding the train in the middle of the week. Should the same Niagara County Sheriff’s Dept. dogs make a similar error at your home or even during a routine traffic stop, the consequences could be far graver.





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