Wednesday, November 04, 2009

More litigation, disapprobation for dog 'scent lineups'

Yet another lawsuit will be filed today in federal court over false arrest and imprisonment based on dog "scent lineup" evidence from Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett. Reports AP:

Three men who spent months in jail after dogs linked their scents to evidence from crimes they did not commit are filing a lawsuit claiming Texas authorities falsely arrested and imprisoned them, their attorney said Tuesday.

The lawsuit, which will be filed in federal court in Houston on Wednesday, asks for compensatory and punitive damages for the emotional pain and suffering the men say they suffered in jail.

Named in the lawsuit are: five homicide investigators in the Houston Police Department; Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright; and Deputy Keith Pikett, whose dogs were used in the investigations. The City of Houston and its police department are also listed as defendants.

This is at least the third lawsuit targeting Pikett, who has spent about 20 years training dogs named Clue, James Bond and Columbo to sniff out possible criminals in more than 2,000 scent identification lineups. Pikett says his dogs determine if a suspect's scent matches smells from crime scene evidence.

Relatedly, the New York Times has coverage this morning of Deputy Pikett's scent lineups and the Innocence Project of Texas report (pdf) criticizing the practice. Times reporter John Schwarz has a blog post with additional information, including more detail about the FBI's past and present use of the practice:

The ability of animals to read their handlers, known as the “Clever Hans” phenomenon, has been written about in The Times for 100 years.

While some states have used dogs for scent lineups, the Federal Bureau of Investigation says it shuns the practice, and uses dogs to follow a trail to a suspect or a location associated with him, and not to identify one person out of several. Thomas Lintner, the chief of the F.B.I. Laboratory’s evidence response team unit said that the bureau has been using scent dogs to link people to crimes for four years as an “emerging technology” and works under carefully controlled conditions using “scent transfer units” that vacuum air across pads with minimal contamination. Even then, the F.B.I. restricts the uses of the evidence produced by dogs.

“It’s a lead generation activity,” he said. “It’s not something we’re going to take to court and say, ‘we need to indict this guy.’ ”

A story written in 2002 by Scott Shane, now a New York Times reporter, when he worked at the Baltimore Sun, suggests, however, that F.B.I.’s approach to using dogs to gather evidence has not always been so scrupulous. That article (which is archived, and requires a payment to see in full), suggested that bloodhound handlers from Southern California brought in to assist in the search for the source of deadly anthrax in letters mailed in 2001 may have contributed to the the F.B.I.’s flawed decision to focus on Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, who was later cleared of suspicion in the case. One news report called bloodhounds the F.B.I.’s “secret weapon” linking Dr. Hatfill to the letters.
The use of scent lineups in the Hatfill/anthrax case is arguably the highest profile example in America of prosecuting based on accusations by dogs, but the Texas lawsuits show it's not an isolated incident.

We also get a little update on the current status of Deputy Pikett's scent lineup work:

Jeff Blackburn, the author of the Innocence Project report, said of Mr. Pikett, “It’s a marvel to me that they’re still using him anywhere.”

Randall Morse, an assistant Fort Bend County attorney who is representing Mr. Pikett, said that that Mr. Pikett’s lineup work has dropped off considerably since the lawsuits began. While unwilling to comment extensively on cases in litigation, Mr. Morse said that Mr. Pikett and his dogs provide valuable evidence for police to act on, nothing more. He cited cases in which the dogs have not given police the answer they hoped for in linking a suspect to a crime, and were later proved right when another suspect was convicted.

But, he acknowledged, the process itself can seem mysterious, even to him. “The first time I saw it, I couldn’t understand what the dogs were doing,” but Mr. Pikett clearly did, he said. “He’s been doing it so long, he doesn’t understand why we don’t see it.”

That's pretty amazing coverage for the recent report (pdf) by my former employers at the Innocence Project of Texas. As journalists like to say, this story has legs ... in this case four of them.

See prior, related Grits coverage:


Anonymous said...

What's interesting about the use of dogs for PC and in the courts is that in most cases (I believe the exception is explosives) the handlers do NOT keep a record of their false positives nor of their false negatives (either in training or when a later search is conducted based on something other than the dog's initial failure to hit).

It's accepted that a trained dog is 100% accurate in court yet anyone who has worked with dogs knows better. Surprised someone hasn't been successful in overturning dog cases on this failure to document alone. Once moved a few hundred pounds of cocaine in the trunk of a car yet after offloading it, a drug dog failed to hit on the car a few hours later. People in the business believe that a good dog should have hit on it. That failure, needless to say, wasn't documented.

Anonymous said...

I once had the opportunity to observe an accelerant sniffing dog with a DEA handler at a fire scene investigation. It was fairly clear that it was a case of arson and there were observable indications of some type of residue underneath the window where something had most likely been thrown through. The handler pointed to the area. The dog sniffed, sat (sitting was his indicator), and received a treat. It looked to me like the dog had learned that if he sniffed and sat where the handler pointed he would get a treat. I wasn't impressed.

I can't help but wonder why this deputy who runs these scent lineups has not yet been prosecuted for perjury. I recall reading where he lied on the stand about his qualifications. Why isn't he facing perjury charges?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant ATF above, not DEA.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly the CCA has granted discretionary review today on this point: Here's the case name and the grounds for review:


1. An important question implicating the administration of justice is presented by the Court of Appeals' reliance upon a dog scent lineup to sustain the legal sufficiency of the evidence without regard to the inherent limitations of such evidence.

2. An important question implicating the administration of justice also is presented by the Court of Appeals' failure properly to evaluate the factual sufficiency of the evidence by addressing the inherent limitations of dog scent lineup evidence.

So the CCA is either going to do the right thing, or uphold yet more ghastly junk science - watch this space ...