Policing and Scent Lineups

This week, several news outlets ran articles about law enforcement agencies in Texas using a unique approach involving dogs to implicate persons in serious crimes. Prior to reading the articles, I had not heard of this practice.

"Scent lineups" are described as this:

...A scent lineup starts with the dog being introduced to a scent sample that has been collected from a crime scene or a piece of evidence. After "getting" that scent, the dog is then presented with a series of containers with similar scents in them.

These scents have often been taken directly from a suspect and others matching the general description of the suspect.

The idea is that the dog will then communicate to its handler/observer if the scent that it "got" the first time matches the scent in one of the containers. The handler/observer, so the theory goes, can then testify that his dog accurately picked out the scent of a particular suspect...

It is called a "scent lineup" because of its similarity to an eyewitness lineup...
Evidently, this technique is only being used by prosecutors in Texas and Florida and has resulted in recent criticism and some civil litigation for those agencies involved.

Last month, the Innocence Project of Texas released a critical report of scent lineups labeling the approach "junk science." Despite having a persuasive argument against scent lineups, I believe the author of the report does his organization a disservice in his approach by including personal attacks against a specific officer and clearly writing with an agenda (as opposed to offering the evidence and assuming that his readers are intelligent enough to make their own conclusions).

If you can stomach the author's arrogant tone, the report includes this:

--That the dog handler in Texas allegedly testified that his dogs were wrong in scent lineups only about 5 times in 7,000 chances. The author then offers that the best scent dogs used with strict guidelines and training in the Netherlands are reportedly accurate only about 85% of the time.

--In the Netherlands, scent lineups are only admissible if other corroborating evidence is available (DNA, etc.).

--There are evidently no standards or certification process in the US for handlers using this approach.
The author cites several cases where the incorrect suspect was targeted by police based on scent lineups, and concludes with an appeal to officials in Texas to immediately stop using the practice.

With the negative publicity generated by the report, it will be interesting to see how this story progresses. The pending civil litigation should be telling--if the lawsuits are successful, expect this practice to disappear.

In the meantime, I would expect police and prosecutorial supporters to start trying to prove in scientific terms that this is a valid approach in helping to solve crimes, and to develop a certification process and training standards for handlers involved in scent lineups.

Note: The photo above was taken by Bill Clough and is displayed here.


Christopher said...

Like you I've taken note of this issue, and my conlusion is, I'm not a fan.

First, how can there be no certification process and it still be acceptable?

And secondly, there is a reoccuring psychological phenomenon I see with our K9 handlers. If my Glock malfunctioned or my Taser worked improperly, it wouldn't be difficult for me to acknowledge that and make it sure it gets fixed. But K9 handlers often seem to find it difficult to separate an issue with their dog from being an issue with them, to the point of defending a dog to their own detriment.

Finding dope or conducting a track, you get instant feedback if they were right or not. I wouldn't trust them with a "scent line-up".

Sandra G. said...

I too saw this article last week and had never heard of the practice before reading it.

I'm with Christopher - how can the practice be acceptable before the courts if there is no certification process?

~PakKaramu~ said...

Visiting your blog

BobKat said...

I have the utmost respect for K9's and their skills... I can imagine circumstances where a "scent line-up" would be appropriate... for example when I was pulled over a year ago and subjected to a pat down because the officer that pulled me over had some notion I was a druggie... he point blank asked me when he came to my window if I'd been drinking or using marijuana? Duh... that's it? What about all the other possibilities? Fact is I was quite sober. I'd been driving down the road listening to NHPR, had just heard that "this is Liz Buckley's last night on Front Porch", and I must have crossed onto the white line at highways edge... that's what the officer pulled me over for. But the fact he had to conduct a pat down, when I was no threat to his life, I'd have welcomed the scent line up with K9's... Seriously... let's get real. If a K9 scent line-up can help find evidence that a crime against humanity is obvious, I'm all for it... if it's to waste tax-payer money to track down non-hostile, deviants who wish an alternative that is safer than legally available drugs - alcohol and tobacco, I'm against it.

Recent articles in the news suggest random, targeted traffic stops are on an increase... those involved, law enforcement advocates claim it has reduced crime... but they also admit it targets drugs, and illegal immigrants... why don't we focus on finding and controlling those individuals who are a real threat to our society... ?

BobKat said...

By the way... if I'd admitted to the officer I'd crossed the line because hearing that Liz Buckley was gone... I'd have been issued a ticket for "Driving while Distracted". It's a law here in NH. Obviously it was intended for those distracted by a cell-phone, but I suppose hearing that your favorite radio host is leaving NHPR, also counts. Fortunately, the officer's idea that I was high on cannabis distracted him enough from doing his job.

I've considered turning myself in... being "distracted" as I had been... but I'm still more depressed that NHPR dropped Liz, than I am that I didn't tell the officer why I'd crossed the white line. He let me go... without any tickets or fines...

I have to ask... where or what dotted line did I sign as an American Citizen endorsing this sort of law enforcement activity? 30 minutes of my personal time was infringed upon because of what reason??? And the reason I didn't file a complaint? Same reason as it only adds red tape to an already unfortunate event. The officer was doing what he felt was his job... but I pay his salary I I feel he ought to pay a little less attention to reefer madness, and a little more attention to protecting me and society in general.

Scent Line-ups"... if it is a law enforcement tool that can be used to make society safer, I'm all for it.