Are Drug-Sniffing Dogs Accurate?

By: Wallin & Klarich

Any time Timmy fell into the well, we could count on his dog Lassie to alert the proper people in order to save him. However, Lassie was a TV character. What happens when dogs are counted on when someone’s life is on the line in real life?

The accuracy of drug-sniffing dogs used by police has come into question of late. A recent court ruling could help create the foundation necessary to eliminate the use of drug-sniffing dogs by law enforcement.

Inaccurate Dog Becomes Convicted Man’s Best Friend on Appeal

Drug DogsIn August 2015, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision challenged the accuracy of drug-sniffing dogs. The ruling, carried out by Chicago’s 7th District U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the results from drug-sniffing dogs may not be legally admissible as the basis for a search.

The decision was a result of an appeal by Larry Bentley Jr., who was previously found guilty of drug possession. A drug-sniffing police dog was used to justify a search of Bentley’s car, and police found 20 kilograms of cocaine inside. The dog in the case in question, named Lex, was shown to identify the presence of drugs in 93% of cases. He was proven to be wrong 40% of the time.1

The court ruled that if the drug search and subsequent conviction had relied solely on evidence derived from Lex’s detection, it could have caused the conviction to be overturned.

A Recent History of Drug-Sniffing Dogs

The use of drug-sniffing dogs has already been limited after a ruling by the United States Supreme Court earlier in 2015. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that dogs cannot be used in traffic stops without an already present reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred.

In that case, the court held that prolonging a traffic stop solely for carrying out a dog sniff would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures.2 However this decision, unlike the 7th District’s ruling, did not necessarily call into question the accuracy and substantive legality of dog searches, only the procedural aspect of the practice.

Police Dogs

Critics of K-9 drug sniffing units claim that this high number of false positives could make it easier for police to conduct unwarranted searches. Proponents say the low rate of accuracy (approximately 40%) that is acceptable for certification as a drug-sniffing dog means that a practice as random as a coin flip is sufficient rationale for the police to search your property.

These numbers also imply that it is possible for four out of every 10 people to be wrongly searched by law enforcement.3 This new development may cause other courts to question the validity of drug-sniffing dogs.

What Do You Think about Drug-sniffing Dogs?

The use of drug-sniffing dogs to detect drugs has become a controversial issue in recent months. Do you think these K-9 units should be considered accurate? Should law enforcement officials stop using dogs to justify searches of property that otherwise would not be searched? Is the reaction of a dog enough to warrant probable cause to search your vehicle? Please let us know what you think in the comments section below.


1. [http://www.usnews.com/news/offbeat/articles/2015/07/29/us-court-says-drug-sniffing-dog-fails-the-smell-test]
2. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/21/scotus-drug-sniffing-dogs_n_7109146.html]
3. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2015/08/04/federal-appeals-court-drug-dog-thats-barely-more-accurate-than-a-coin-flip-is-good-enough/]

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