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K-9 Units Less Reliable Than Police Believe

Posted on in Drug Crimes

K-9 Units Less Reliable Than Police BelieveMany police departments have trained K-9 units that alert them to the presence of illegal drugs. In Illinois, dogs are trained to conduct sniff searches for heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and cannabis and to give the handler a response when there is a hit. Courts have ruled that using a K-9 unit is not an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and can create probable cause to conduct a further search for the illegal substances. However, studies show a significant rate of false alerts by K-9 units, which creates doubt about whether an alert from a dog should be enough evidence to allow a police search.

Problem with K-9 Units

Illinois requires dogs in K-9 units to be retested annually to ensure that they are accurate in detecting illegal substances. However, handlers are part of the cause of false alerts in some cases. Dogs are eager to please their handlers and able to pick up on unintentional body language. When a handler is suspicious of a package or vehicle, the dog may give a positive alert in order to affirm that suspicion. The handler can also train the dog to give false alerts by giving it a treat only when it alerts the handler. Despite this potential bias during drug searches, many police departments have not trained their K-9 units to ignore unintentional cues from their handlers.

Court Rulings

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently trusted the accuracy of K-9 unit searches and considered them unobtrusive in most cases:

  • In 2005, the court ruled that using a K-9 unit on a vehicle is not an unlawful search as long as the initial traffic stop was legal and waiting on the unit does not unreasonably delay the process;
  • In 2013, the court rejected a defendant’s argument that judges should consider a dog’s history of accuracy before granting a warrant based on a positive alert; and
  • Also in 2013, the court ruled that a K-9 unit search of a residence was illegal because police had not obtained a warrant to enter the home.

The Supreme Court is currently considering a case from Minnesota about whether a K-9 unit sniffing outside of an apartment constitutes a search. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that they are not searches that require warrants, but opponents are concerned that the ruling allows police to profile people in low-income residences.

Contact a Crystal Lake Criminal Defense Lawyer

Evidence from K-9 unit searches is not infallible, contrary to the belief of police departments and prosecutors. A McHenry County criminal defense attorney at Botto Gilbert Lancaster, PC, can cast doubt on drug charges that rely on a sniff search. To schedule a free consultation, call 815-338-3838.



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