Courts Take a Deferential Approach to K-9 Unit Drug Searches

Posted on in Criminal Defense

k-9 unit, police dog, Illinois criminal defense lawyer, drug crimes, Chicago criminal attorneyPolice commonly use specially trained dogs—sometimes called “K-9 units”—to assist in detecting the presence of illegal drugs. Last year, the United States Supreme Court clarified the role of such dogs in establishing probable cause to search a defendant's vehicle. The Florida Supreme Court had held that police must establish the dog's reliability by introducing “the dog's training and certification records,” “field performance records,” and “evidence concerning the experience and training of the officer handling the dog,” among other things. The U.S. Supreme Court said such an “exhaustive” demonstration was unnecessary. Instead, prosecutors need only introduce the dog's training records to show it is a reliable detector of possible drugs. The dog's actual record in the field—the number of hits or misses—is not relevant to a probable-cause determination.

K-9 Unit Deemed Reliable

Based on this decision, an Illinois state appeals court recently rejected a convicted defendant's challenge to the police's reliance on a K-9 animal in his case. The defendant was initially stopped by police in December 2010 on charges of speeding. A police dog and his handler sniffed the area around the defendant's vehicle. The dog then “alerted” the handler to the presence of narcotics. Police then searched the defendant's vehicle and recovered approximately 30 pounds of illegal psychedelic mushrooms. The defendant was then charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

At trial, the defense challenged the dog's reliability. The trial judge ultimately found the dog was properly trained and therefore reliable. The court found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

The defendant again challenged the dog's reliability on appeal. But the appeals court, applying the Supreme Court's decision from the previous year, said the state more than met its burden in showing the animal was properly trained. The court noted the dog and his police handler “completed a 10-week training program” and the dog was properly certified to “do narcotic and apprehension work” at least twice a year.

K-9 Unit’s Record Scrutinized

The defense pointed to the dog's field performance records. In one-third of his cases, the dog's alert failed to result in the recovery of any drugs. The appeals court said that, under the Supreme Court's rule, that was irrelevant. As long as the dog was properly trained, actual field performance could not be used to challenge the animal's reliability. It is entirely possible, the appeals court explained, that those failures arose from the dog detecting residue or drugs too well concealed for police to locate; it could not be assumed the dog failed due to unreliability.

While the courts may tread lightly in assessing the reliability of K-9 units, defendants must still be proactive in challenging any questionable evidence that may lead to their conviction. A qualified Chicago criminal attorney is a necessity in any case where a person faces the possibility of conviction and imprisonment. If you or someone you know is facing drug charges, contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today.
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