July 24, 2009



Dog-sniff jurisprudence
by Jim Hightower

Two criminal cases in Texas have raised quite a stench about a smell test that prosecutors nationwide have been using to toss a lot of folks in jail — folks who turn out to be innocent.

The tactic is called a "scent lineup." Rather than the common police lineup that asks eyewitnesses to pick out a criminal, this method goes to the dogs. Literally. Trained dogs sniff evidence from the crime scene and are then brought into a line up to detect crime-scene smells on the suspect. The dog-sniff results have been called "hopelessly imprecise," but courts across the country allow them as evidence.

In the two recent Texas cases, dogs put one fellow in jail for two months before a DNA test exonerated him of a robbery and sexual assault, while dogs in the other case almost got the suspect nailed for murder — until another man confessed.

"This is junk science," said an attorney for the Innocence Project of Texas. Then he corrected himself: "This isn't even science. This is just junk."

There are a couple of big flaws with scent lineups. One is that the dogs are easily influenced by their handlers. Another is that there are usually many confusing scents on a piece of evidence or on suspects. But the biggest flaw is this: dogs can't talk. So their reactions to a scent have to be interpreted in court by the handler, who essentially tells the judge and jury: "This is what the dog is saying."

The whole sniff-and-tell routine is made even more absurd by the fact that there is no training program or test for handlers, and no guidelines or peer reviewed standards of procedure for running scent lineups. As one defense lawyer puts it, "You make up the rules as you go along."

To have credibility, justice has to be based on the rule of law, not on the voodoo of dog sniffing.

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