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Court has harsh words about K-9 sniffer dogs

A U.S. appellate court in Illinois has upheld the conviction of a St. Louis man serving a 20-year sentence for drug possession on July 28, but the court was not impressed by the police practice of using drug sniffing dogs to justify vehicle searches. The drug possession conviction was upheld because prosecutors were able to establish that other evidence, such as contradictory statements made to officers, gave police probable cause to search the man's vehicle.

However, the court was highly critical of police drug sniffing K-9 units. Records produced in court revealed that the Belgian Malinois involved in the search of the St. Louis man's car signaled the presence of drugs 93 percent of the time when tested. Judges said that this amounted to giving police officers a pretext to search any vehicle that interested them. The records also indicated that the dog involved failed to find drugs about 40 percent of the time. While judges were unimpressed by these performance statistics, they conceded that they likely met minimum levels established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dog's handler said that the statements made in court about his 10-year-old partner were unfair. He told reporters that the Belgian Malinois was a good dog and had received a 90 percent score during controlled certification tests. Police did concede that the practice of rewarding dogs when they alerted even if no drugs were found was wrong. A police representative said that the practice has been discontinued.

Many criminal defense attorneys would find the defendant's contradictory statements to police to be the most troubling aspect of this case. The U.S. Constitution establishes strict boundaries that law enforcement must work within, and even evidence that seems compelling may not withstand the close scrutiny of a defense attorney. Those facing drug charges should cooperate with police, but they should make no statements whatsoever until they are represented by an attorney.

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