Two recent traffic stop videos have outraged much of the American public. In these videos, the drivers are seen being forced into anal exams, stomach x-rays and even colonoscopies after police accuse them of smuggling drugs.
Both drivers -- David Eckert and Timothy Young -- were guilty only of minor traffic violations. One of them rolled through a stop sign. The other failed to signal before turning.
Yet, when the supposedly expert police dog Leo sniffed out their vehicles, he gave an "alert" on each man's driver's seat -- basically telling his handlers that there were drugs in proximity of that unfortunate soul's rear.
Several hours, numerous rectal exams and a couple enemas later, police finally admitted that neither man was hiding drugs in his guts. The matters were complicated by police taking their suspects to hospitals outside of their jurisdiction, even though they had search warrants.
Naturally, lawsuits followed. As did the local news crews.
That's when KOB Eyewitness News 4 turned up an interesting tidbit: Leo the police dog isn't actually properly licensed. His license expired in 2011 and was not renewed. Even so, Leo the police dog is still on the job.
Leo's false alerts aren't unique. In a wide-ranging analysis of police stops, The Chicago Tribune found in 2011 that more than half of all canine "alerts" do not turn up any contraband. More worrisome, the analysis found that the number of false "alerts" jumped to 73 percent when police were confronting a Latino suspect, suggesting that dog handlers actively manipulate their animals to give them probable cause to search.
The problem of manipulating these animals is amplified because false positives rarely if ever end up being discussed in court. So, there is no accountability for police that falsely trigger their dogs.
A study published in the January 2011 edition of the scientific journal Animal Cognition also found that drug and explosive-sniffing dogs can be tremendously influenced by their handlers' beliefs. Lisa Lit, the study's lead author, even cautioned that the handler's beliefs "might be as important -- or even more important -- than the sensitivity of a dog's nose."
While the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year was right to rein in the use of canines in unwarranted searches around the perimeter of private residences, our laws still place too much faith in the accuracy of your average sniffer. Even in restraining the use of dogs, the Supreme Court's majority argued that one can never really disprove a dog's opinion in drug searches.
But, if the United States is still a nation that believes in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, perhaps the court's reasoning should be flipped on its head. Maybe the dog shouldn't be viewed as infallible, requiring a higher standard for probable cause. Or maybe we should rethink the whole idea of using police truncheons to punish people afflicted with the medical blight of addiction.
Really, it's just a question now of how many more innocent Americans must have cameras forcibly shoved up their rears before a majority of our lawmakers accept the need for drastic reform.
Photo: Flickr user Michael Pereckas, creative commons licensed.