Sniffing Out the Illinois State K-9 Unit's Errors in Finding Drugs

It's the job of the Illinois State K-9 Unit to sniff out illegal substances, but a recent audit of their performance over an 11-month period uncovered just how inaccurate some of the dog alerts can be. In about three out of 10, or 30 percent, of cases during this period, a narcotics-only dog alerted officers that it smelled drugs, prompting a warrantless vehicle search where no illegal substances were discovered. These poor error rates bode well for Illinois defendants to fight drug offense charges or convictions when a K-9 unit was involved.

Purpose Of K-9 Unit

According to the U.S. Supreme Court in various opinions regarding the Fourth Amendment and searches and seizures, an alert by a drug dog is enough to provide probable cause and perform a warrantless vehicle search. An alert is the sniffing dog's behavior when it smells narcotics. The Illinois State Police train their narcotics-only dogs for six weeks to detect cannabis, cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. The K-9 Unit helped Illinois police make over 1,600 arrests and recover more than $123 million in drugs in 2009.

Audit And Analysis

The Internet newspaper Huffington Post audited reports by an Illinois State Police K-9 Unit for an 11-month period between 2007 and 2008. Their analysis showed that only about 25 percent of 136 alerts by one narcotic-sniffing dog helped police recover a measurable amount of drugs. Only 13 percent of the alerts led to discoveries of marijuana in quantities of 10 grams or more, which within the range of possession charges. Just over 10 percent of alerts led to stashes of drugs large enough to fall within the realm of felony charges.

Error Rates

In most of the reported alert cases analyzed during the audit the K-9 Unit's police officer noted that vehicle drivers or passengers looked under the influence of drugs. In almost 30 percent of these cases, however, there were no illegal substances recovered after performing further searches. This failure rate of almost 30 percent, or around three out of 10 alerts, leaves a large margin for error and violation of people's rights to unreasonable searches and seizures.

Defending Drug Charges

While this information is only based on reports from a single K-9 Unit in Illinois, the point is loud and clear. Narcotics-sniffing dogs make mistakes, and the error margins between the dog's alerts and police officers actually recovering a significant amount of narcotics can be large. These error rates may even call into question the notion that alerts from drug-sniffing dogs are enough to provide probable cause to perform warrantless vehicle searches.

Defendants in Illinois whose drug charges or convictions were the result of K-9 Unit alerts should consult an Illinois criminal law attorney about fighting or appealing their cases based on this information. It's time to sniff out the truth about the accuracy of drug dogs and prove they are not infallible when it comes to detecting illegal substances.