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Police use of drug sniffing dogs questioned by appeals court


New Jersey residents are likely aware that law enforcement agencies often call upon K-9 units to assist them during searches. The abilities of these dogs to detect even trace amounts of illegal drugs is often touted by police departments and media outlets, but judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit were unimpressed by the police reliance on themwhen they ruled on a drug case appeal on July 28.

The case involved a St. Louis man serving a 20 year prison sentence for drug possession. While the court upheld the conviction, the performance of the K-9 unit involved was questioned. Records entered into evidence showed that the Belgian Malinois alerted to drugs more than nine times out of 10, and the animal was rewarded for alerting even if no drugs were found. Judges hearing the case said that the dog's record was only slightly better than tossing a coin and dogs that alerted so readily gave police a pretext to search vehicles at will.

The case has led the police department involved to discontinue the practice of rewarding K-9 drug sniffing dogs in the field. The dog's handler took exception to the statements made in court about his Belgian Malinois partner. He said that the dog generally performed well and earned scores of over 90 percent during certification exercises.

The St. Louis man's conviction was upheld because the court determined that the police officers involved did not rely entirely on the drug sniffing dog. Among the additional evidence were contradictory statements made by the man. When dealing with a drug case, criminal defense attorneys could closely review the actions of police officers for indications that constitutional protections have been violated. Defense attorneys could also recommend that those facing drug possession charges make no statements to police even when the evidence against them seems compelling.

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