Friday, November 11, 2011

K9 Fraud! Essential Reading for Handlers, Lawyers, and Judges

A book that should be in every police canine handler’s library, as well as the library of every lawyer and judge who handles cases involving canine evidence, is K9 Fraud! Fraudulent Handling of Police Search Dogs, by Resi Gerritsen and Ruud Haak (Detselig Enterprises Ltd., Calgary, Canada, 2010). The authors are married and live in the Czech Republic near the Austrian border, where they are training directors for the International Red Cross Federal, the UN, the International Rescue Dog Organisation, and the Fédération Cynologique Internationale.

Gerritsen and Haak are also the authors of K9 Professional Tracking: A Complete Manual for Theory and Training (Detselig, 2001). With Adee Schoon, Haak wrote K9 Suspect Discrimination: Training and Practicing Scent Identification Lineups (Detselig, 2002). Haak is the editor of Onze Hond, one of the widely circulated dog magazines in Europe. In the interest of full disclosure, my book on service and therapy dogs was mentioned favorably in Onze Hond.

The subtitle of K9 Fraud! is somewhat unfortunate in its reference to police search dogs, as this might suggest to American readers that the book is about search and rescue operations. Most of the chapters actually discuss fraud in scent identification lineups and in tracking and trailing. An entire chapter is devoted to canine responsiveness to human gestures, which any lawyer, or any judge, dealing with a cueing claim should read. The publisher did not serve this important work well in failing to provide an index, and I found it necessary to use post-its to highlight pages I will want to refer to again.

Those who have read other books by these authors, and authors with whom they have associated, will find some of the material familiar, if not on occasion repetitive. The difference is that where the other books (at least the ones with which I am familiar) look at canine practice from the perspective of how to do it right, this book focuses on how it can be done wrong. I am inclined to think that the latter approach may be more necessary for lawyers and judges, particularly in the U.S. As I pointed out in recent discussions of a drug bust and a station identification, many American judges are still inclined to accept the work of canine handlers uncritically and do not adequately consider what might have been done wrong. In all fairness, I must acknowledge that some courts, such as the Florida Supreme Court, have begun to look past the mystique and require a solid foundation for the admission of canine evidence.

Gerritsen and Haak are not afraid to take on handlers by name, some of whom are prominent and spoken of with respect. Of course, these authors are writing from and probably more influential in continental Europe than in the U.S.

A Botched Murder Prosecution Leads to Blanket Exclusion of Lineups in the Netherlands
A murder investigation and prosecution led to the exclusion as evidence of scent lineups performed in the North and East Netherlands over a period of nine years because it was found that a critical requirement for performing a scent lineup had been ignored by police during this period. The mistake was regarded as so critical that six police dog handlers were sentenced to prison for two years. One of the cases that led to this exclusion is discussed by Gerritsen & Haak in detail.

Jacqueline Wittenberg, a rich old widow living in the Dutch town of Deventer was murdered on September 23, 1999, but was not found for several days. There were no signs of a break-in. It was known that she did not admit strangers to her home, and only admitted people she knew if she expected them. The last one to call her on the night of the murder was Ernest Louwes, her tax advisor. Louwes claimed to have been far from Deventer at the time the call was made. A telecom expert testified, however, that if Louwes had made the call from anywhere but Deventer, the call would not have been relayed through the telecom antenna in Deventer.

A knife was discovered two days later under a neighbor’s porch. The neighbor who found it picked it up with his sleeve to avoid leaving his own fingerprints on it. The knife was used in a canine scent identification lineup, resulting in the identification of Louwes as having left scent on the knife. In 2002, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands concluded that the knife had not been the murder weapon. Louwes was released in 2003.

DNA extraction from the blouse that Wittenberg was wearing when she was murdered again pointed to Louwes, however, and he was resentenced in 2004 to 12 years in prison. Suspicions regarding Wittenberg’s handyman and his girlfriend began to surface, however, and additional investigation brought to light a number of discrepancies in their earlier stories. Louwes was again released in 2009. Dutch law still considers Louwes to be the murderer, but a number of observers now doubt his guilt.

The fact that Louwes was identified in a scent lineup where a knife that was later found not to have been used in the crime has apparently never been explained.

Prosecution of Dutch Police for Scent Lineup Failures 

The paragraph following the description of the Deventer case by Gerritsen and Haak says much about why scent lineups have come into question in Europe, despite being in general much more rigorously performed there than in the United States:

“The seven police dog handlers of North and East Netherlands region were prosecuted for perjury and forgery, because it was found that they hadn’t performed the scent identification line-ups exactly in accordance to the regulations. According to these rules, the dog handler may not know the position of the scent carriers of the suspect, to avoid influencing his dog. This step was found to be omitted in many cases between September 1997 and March 2006. Even worse, was that the official reports stated that all identification line-ups were processed in compliance with the standard codes of operation. In November 2007, the seven police dog handlers were convicted to penal labor of 240 hours. Six of the seven handlers were also incarcerated for two years and were removed entirely from their positions. Only the dog handler that had shed light on situation was allowed to continue his duty.”

Whether SWGDOG guidelines should be recognized as U.S. national standards involves issues of transparency and delegation of regulatory authority. Even if such issues were overcome and there were some general recognition of SWGDOG as establishing best practices applicable in a broad range of criminal investigative contexts, it is unlikely that the organization would ever be the beneficiary of criminal enforcement for failures to implement its recommendations.

A Tool for Judges and Lawyers

In researching Police and Military Dogs, I found that early decisions from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century had a better feel for what dogs could do than more recent cases. Many judges of those times—particularly judges in the American South, where tracking largely began as a police function—were hunters and experienced with the tracking of animals. More recent decisions, in contrast, often showed undue deference to the testimony of handlers, or, alternatively, regarded canine evidence as being produced by silly animals, hardly worthy of the court’s time, dogs of the sort the judges saw in the elevators of their high-rise condo buildings. For a brief time I wondered if I could create a taxonomy of pro-dog and anti-dog judges based on their tolerance for and appreciation of canine evidence, but no clear pattern of this sort emerged as I read over 1,200 judicial decisions. What did emerge was that many judges failed to recognize the slow but steady progress that was being made in the practical applications of canine olfaction, and the decisions often lacked any real understanding of how dogs behave or the limits of their skills. Appellate decisions often avoided careful analysis of trial court failures by labeling as harmless the errors that appeared to have been made.

Another circumstance I noted as I researched police canine law was an increase in claims of ineffective assistance of counsel being made by defendants convicted in significant part by canine evidence. No law school that I am aware of offers a class in this increasingly active area of criminal law. Reading through the lines of opinions, it was often apparent that defense counsel was quite effective in raising procedural issues and in offering stiff resistance to most evidentiary aspects of the prosecution’s case, but cross-examination of police dog handlers was often anemic and missed apparent weaknesses in their testimony. Defense experts were chosen for some general canine expertise, or for superior academic credentials, but were often not versed in the areas where the prosecution’s case might have been vulnerable to a countervailing perspective. Lines of questioning often bogged down on issues that did not bolster any viable defense position, while other aspects of a handler's testimony remained unaddressed.

I should say that this lack of adequate legal attention to canine evidentiary issues also comes from those, such as the Innocence Project, who want to have police dog work labeled as “junk science” and excluded altogether. Here the weaknesses of judges and lawyers are being distilled into a knee-jerk battle cry against the acceptance of canine evidence at all.

I recommend that all these participants in the criminal justice system read K9 Fraud! before writing another brief, opinion, or press release.

Thanks to L.E. Papet and Gail McConnell for suggestions that improved this blog.


  1. Great description of the K9 Fraud. this is really worth of it

  2. All it takes to make a police dog alert is for an unscrupulous handler to either slow the dog down from his normal search rhythm or a small tug on the lead.