Last week, a U.S. Appellate Court ruled that a drug sniffing dog could be used to justify a police search despite the fact that the animal’s accuracy rate was only slightly better than a coin flip.

As Radley Balko of the Washington Post points out, the ruling offers almost no incentive for police departments to properly train their drug-sniffing dogs to minimize false positives.

According to Balko, a Chicago Tribune report found that drug-sniffing dogs in suburban Chicago had an accuracy rate of just 44 percent (27 percent when dealing with Latino motorists). But those abysmal numbers probably wouldn’t matter to our federal appellate courts. A case that came before the Fourth Circuit was upheld even though the dog involved was wrong 57 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, the way the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on this issue… has given police agencies a strong incentive to ensure that drug dogs aren’t trained to act independently of their handler’s suspicions. A dog prone to false alerts means more searches, which means more opportunities to find and seize cash and other lucre under asset forfeiture policies. In fact, a drug dog’s alert in and of itself is often cited as evidence of drug activity, even if no drugs are found, thus enabling police to seize cash, cars and other property from motorists.

In other words, since accuracy is not a factor, police dogs that give false positives cast a wider net, justifying searches that would otherwise be illegal. As Jacob Sullum puts it, these dogs are like a “search warrant on a leash.”

Click here to read Balko’s entire editorial.

(Source: The Washington Post)