Tuesday, June 30, 2009

'Scent lineups stink to critics'

The title of this post is the headline over a USA Today article published today voicing criticisms of Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett's use of bloodhounds to conduct "scent lineups," which have led to false accusations in two recent cases including one that resulted in a DNA exoneration. According to USA Today:
Two federal lawsuits are casting a harsh spotlight on an investigative tool long beloved by American law enforcement: a bloodhound's nose.

Lawsuits filed in Victoria, Texas, allege that Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett and his team of hounds — James Bond, Quincy and Clue — failed controversial sniff tests known as "scent lineups."

Much like in traditional lineups, the dogs link human scents left at crime scenes to samples from suspects.

In each case, the suits allege, Pikett's dogs called attention to the wrong person. Both former suspects have been cleared. ...

Defense lawyers say the technique smacks of forensic voodoo and casts further suspicion on the broader use of scent dog evidence.

"It's a fraud on so many levels," says Jeffrey Weiner, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Since 2004, two men in Florida and one in California have been freed after DNA evidence exonerated them. They had been convicted, in part, on the use of scent evidence, according to the Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate the wrongly convicted. Pikett's dogs weren't involved in those cases.

National Police Bloodhound Association spokesman Dennis Guzlas says the association urges that scent lineups be used with caution.

What is the error rate for the dogs' identifications, since we know it's not zero? Do the scent lineups utilize "blind" administration or is Pikett inadvertently tipping the dogs off who to pick? And has there been anyone convicted based on evidence from Pikett's dogs alone? If so, there might be some valid innocence claims looming out there among the 2,000 cases Pikett claims his dogs have worked. Dog sniffs aren't exceptionally reliable in other venues so I'm not sure why they'd be taken as gospel here, particularly in the face of a DNA exoneration proving the dogs and the deputy were wrong. How many other, similar errors have they made that nobody caught?

See prior Grits coverage:

MORE: Radley Balko focused recently on a similar example out of Florida where:
So far, three people have been cleared after collectively spending more than 50 years in prison, all of whom were convicted primarily due to the dog's alerts, despite other evidence exculpating them. Florida criminal justice activists say there may be as 60 more people wrongly convicted thanks to [Officer] Preston and his dog.


Anonymous said...

Think about the misuse of drug scent dogs. A "hit" qualifies as probable cause for a search of a vehicle yet few cops keep accurate logs of the false hits where the dog had a positive hit but a search failed to turn up drugs or of false negatives found such as a failure of the dog to alert on narcotics (as in training scenario or where a physical search located drugs after a dog had been run over the vehicle or house. More misuse in the name of convictions.:~)

Lynn said...

God this is really embarrassing. Can you imagine being convicted by a dog's "testimony"? Do you know if these scent lineups would be fall under the recent SCOTUS decision regarding forensic experts? Or is it considered a different kind of evidence?

dirty harry said...

I used to train hunting dogs as a kid. I occasionally still work with bird dogs. I can definitely tell you they are prone to misidentification. Using a dogs' scent to "positively identify" a single person borders on insanity. When it comes to a dog, there are way too many variables at play.

Anonymous said...

I would trust a dog before I would trust anything human touches.DNA is BS.Humans test it there is room for error.Look at OJ,He did it.DNA proved nothing.

Roy said...

Check out the classic story of Clever Hans, the horse that could do arithmetic, in a number of languages.

The dog's 'testimony' should be taken while the trainer is out of the courtroom and unable to cue the dog. Then you will have an uncooperative 'witness' who refuses to testify. The judge can then find the dog in contempt of court.

Anonymous said...

"Look at OJ,He did it.DNA proved nothing."

We feel that OJ did it, yet there is no proof that he did. Did he actually do it, the world may never know. Maybe he hired someone, maybe Elvis and space aliens did it. Who Knows. What is confirmed is that His DNA was not found at the scene and that is what is in Question. Heck, maybe Kato did it...

I cannot understand how you say that DNA cannot be proof. as there is such an unlikely result of identical DNA from two different people. If it were between dogs and DNA, I pick DNA.

Anonymous said...

Well, let's see...

Eyewitness identification is unreliable.

Confessions are unreliable.

DNA can be contaminated or the lab screws up.

The testimony of co-defendants and informants are unreliable.

Fingerprint analysis is unreliable.

Bloodhounds can be biased and are unreliable.

The police cut corners and can't be trusted any more.

Why the hell do we even bother charging anyone with a criminal offense? Ltt's just let all of the criminals go and have anarchy!!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Alternatively, 1:19, police could limit themselves to policing tactics that enjoy a shred of credibility and do everything in their power to make sure they accuse the right person.

Some confessions are false, so record them. Some eyeIDs are bad, so use best practices like blind administration to reduce the chance of error. Scent lineups and other such pseudoscience should be subjected to scientific testing to determine its validity. None of this is too much to ask nor does it amount to declaring, "just let all of the criminals go and have anarchy". Quite the opposite, since every time an innocent person is falsely accused, a guilty person also goes free and won't be held accountable for their crimes.

Anonymous said...

You have finally figured it out. Anything used against the perp will be criticized as invalid. You correctly see the hug-a thug pattern.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Uh, 5:09 ... how is it "hug-a-thug," exactly, to think that the person who did it, not somebody else, should be accused of a crime?

The guy in Victoria identified by the dogs wrongly spent three months in jail not because he was a thug, but because he was falsely accused and the real perpetrator was still on the loose. So the "thug" often benefits if police don't use valid practices in their investigation to make sure they've got the right guy.

Anonymous said...

Hug a thug .. catchy .. what happens when you are driving down the road, say to east Texas and some K9 unit pulls you over.. the dog smells drugs.. Will you STILL hold that sort of ideal when it is your butt in the pokey?

Don't think it won;t happen to you. As a young soldier driving home from another state late one night. I was stopped, cuffed, searched, car was hit with the dog, dog finds 'residue' and I went to the lockup for 14 hours. When asked what i was charged with, cops say possession.. I was a 19 year old soldier that never did a thing with illegal drugs.. got out, charges dropped when my attorney started asking too many quesions.. Longview Texas 1989

Anonymous said...

There are always going to be imperfections in any system. There might a way to achieve the "perfect" public transportation system where no one was ever killed or injured, but what would it cost? There might be a way to achieve the perfect airplane that would never crash, but what would it cost? There might even be a way to have a perfect health care system in this country where everyone gets every available medical technology for every illness but as the president is finding out, cost is most assuredly a concern.

It's easy to look at the state and federal budgets and understand that law enforcement and the criminal justice system are budgetary "stepchildren" when it comes to how public dollars are spent. At a time when 20 plus state budgets are in the red, where are you going to make cuts to finance the improvements you advocate? Someone will ultimately have to pay for videotaped confessions. Someone has to pay for limitless post-conviction DNA testing. If every indigent defendant got a board certified court appointed criminal defense attorney, that too would cost money. Which children do you want to do without health care in order to pay for all of these improvements? Or is your answer to raise taxes?

Most people will agree that the criminal justice system is far from perfect, makes mistakes and should constantly strive for improvement. Without question, it is regrettable for any innocent person to be unjustly convicted. The problem is that some in the "hug a thug" crowd simply want to make it impossible for the system to work at all. Under the guise of "improving the system" they want to cripple the system by making it cost prohibitive to investigate or prosecute anyone. They embrace every technological advancement, every feel good rehabilitation program, every new and innovative post-conviction remedy without regard to where the money will come from and how it might otherwise impact the system--good or bad. I'm sure some will claim that they will pay for it by reducing prison populations. Well fine. But a lot of those folks who aren't locked up are going to reoffend and that too carries a large societal cost.

If we were only concerned about innocent people being harmed, we would allow no one to drive, no one to fly, no one to attend public gatherings where they could catch swine flu, etc...

At the end of the day, the criminal justice system works pretty well and a helluva lot better than in a lot of countries. For the most part, the guilty are being convicted and punished, society is being protected, and the vast majority of the people in this country are not dissatisfied with the way the system operates.

In meantime, while most folks in law enforcement are not adverse to well reasoned change or advancement, I do think they are legitimately concerned about every new "hug a thug" proposal that will make their jobs more difficult or otherwise jeopardize public safety. To those who constantly whine about how unfair the system is and how we need "innocence commissions," independent crime labs, infinite appeals, etc., I just say this: SHOW ME THE MONEY!

Anonymous said...

You got it right!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:42, is this your first time visiting this site? Following the suggestions regularly offered on Grits would save the taxpayers vast sums, not cost more. Guaranteed.

Also, you may think the system works "pretty well," but I'd like to hear you try to convince Timothy Cole's mother of that. Sayin' it don't make it so.

I think it's reasonable to insist that the system work properly and if we can't afford to do it right the system should be downsized to focus on the most important priorities. It'd be better for both public safety and taxpayers' pocketbooks to have a much smaller system that works well than a sprawling, unmanageable one that works poorly. And anyway, as with eyewitness ID best practices, recording interrogations, etc., it's not like most of the reforms are really all that expensive.

To move away from your generalizations about others' motives and looking at the particular case at hand, it costs the taxpayers nothing for the state to NOT use junk science. Deputy Pikett and his dogs are an extra expense (and with civil litigation, getting more expensive all the time), not a cost savings to the public. That's particularly true when they get it wrong.

Anonymous said...

And for every Timothy Cole, there are lots of Kenneth McDuffs who saved the taxpayers tons of money by being released from prison pursuant to a "downsized" criminal justice system. I wonder if the families of his victims are pleased with how much better the system operated.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:21 - you seem not to realize that virtually ALL prisoners get out eventually.

Texas only has 156,000 beds and can't afford to safely operate the 112 units we've got. Texas releases more than 70K state inmates per year, taking in about the same number. So it's fine to pretend in whatever fantasy world you live in that it'd be possible to build out (and more improbably, staff) enough prisons to lock all those people up indefinitely, but in the real world, as you (or some anon) pointed out, you run up against other public priorities.

Bottom line: If you want the Kenneth McDuffs of the world incarcerated longer, don't waste prison space on penny-ante junkies or graffiti artists. I'm not saying don't lock up the bad guys. I'm saying money is tight and the state must prioritize.