Pubdate: Mon, 07 Feb 2011
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2011 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Harvey Grossman


An excellent expose by the Tribune shows that alerts by police 
drug-sniffing dogs in suburban Illinois are usually wrong, and that 
the hit rates for car searches resulting from the use of dogs are 
nearly twice as high for whites than for Hispanics ("Drug dogs often 
wrong; Police canines can fall short, but observers cite residue and 
poor training as factors," Page 1, Jan. 6).

These numbers do not tell the full story. Dog sniffs are menacing, 
especially for minority motorists, in light of historical abuses 
committed with police dogs. Dog sniffs also are humiliating, taking 
place in full view of passing motorists, friends and strangers alike, 
many of whom probably conclude that the people subjected to dog 
sniffs must be guilty of something. Full car searches based on false 
dog alerts are even more frightening and embarrassing.

The same state database used by the Tribune shows a similar racial 
disparity in so-called consent searches, which occur when police lack 
legal cause to search a car but nonetheless request permission to 
search. In 2009, Illinois State Police troopers were 3.2 times more 
likely to consent search Hispanic motorists compared to white 
motorists, yet the resulting hit rate for whites was 2.7 times higher 
than for Hispanics. The data are similar for other years and departments.

These data demonstrate the need to reform dog sniffs and consent 
searches during routine traffic stops. Dog sniffs should be banned 
absent individualized reasonable suspicion that a car contains illegal drugs.

In 2005, legislation to mandate this standard was sponsored by almost 
all members of the Illinois House Black Caucus. This standard should 
be constitutionally mandated. Without this objective standard, too 
many police officers use hunches to decide which cars to sniff, and 
those hunches too often rest on unconscious or even conscious bias. 
The inevitable result of this unbridled discretion is the stark 
racial disparity found by the Tribune.

Requests for consent, like canine sniffs, are based on hunches 
instead of objective evidence, leading predictably to racial 
disparity. Roadside search requests are inherently coercive, which is 
why more than 95 percent of motorists of all races give so-called 
consent to Illinois State Police troopers. Thus, individualized 
suspicion is not a meaningful fix, and consent searches of cars 
should be banned.

The state's dog-sniff and consent-search data also show the need for 
other reforms.

First, a state statute calls for a task force to study such data, and 
to recommend improvements in police policies. Unfortunately, this 
task force has never met. The governor immediately should convene it.

In turn, the task force should promptly recommend individualized 
suspicion for canine sniffs and a ban on consent searches.

Second, the Tribune could not have performed its study without data 
collected under the Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Study Act of 
2003, a police accountability law championed by then-State Sen. 
Barack Obama. Unfortunately, that statute will expire in 2015. The 
Legislature now should make this critical statute permanent.

Third, the Legislature should create a statewide system for training, 
certifying and monitoring drug-sniffing police dogs.

A regulatory agency should track the hit rates of car searches based 
on each dog's alerts.

The study act should be amended to ensure that the public has access 
to these data.

Dogs with poor hit rates or racially disparate hit rates should be 
retrained or retired.

- - Harvey Grossman, legal director, ACLU of Illinois, Chicago
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom