The Austin Chronicle

The Hightower Report

By Jim Hightower, July 31, 2009, News

Dog-Sniff Jurisprudence

Two criminal cases in Texas have raised quite a stench about a smell test that prosecutors nationwide have been using to toss a lot of folks in jail – folks who turn out to be innocent.

The tactic is called a "scent lineup." Rather than the common police lineup that asks eyewitnesses to pick out a criminal, this method goes to the dogs. Literally. Trained dogs sniff evidence from the crime scene and are then brought into a lineup to detect crime-scene smells on the suspect. The dog-sniff results have been called "hopelessly imprecise," but courts across the country allow them as evidence.

In the two recent Texas cases, dogs put one fellow in jail for two months before a DNA test exonerated him of a robbery and sexual assault, while dogs in the other case almost got the suspect nailed for murder – until another man confessed.

"This is junk science," said an attorney for the Innocence Project of Texas. Then he corrected himself: "This isn't even science. This is just junk."

There are a couple of big flaws with scent lineups. One is that the dogs are easily influenced by their handlers. Another is that there are usually many confusing scents on a piece of evidence or on suspects. But the biggest flaw is this: Dogs can't talk. So their reactions to a scent have to be interpreted in court by the handler, who essentially tells the judge and jury, "This is what the dog is saying."

The whole sniff-and-tell routine is made even more absurd by the fact that there is no training program or test for handlers, and no guidelines or peer-reviewed standards of procedure for running scent lineups. As one defense lawyer puts it, "You make up the rules as you go along."

To have credibility, justice has to be based on the rule of law, not on the voodoo of dog-sniffing.

Gov. Goober's Border Cams

The word "glitch" apparently is derived from a Yiddish term meaning "a slippery place." We Texans know right where that place is: our governor's office.

Gov. Rick Perry, a rather low-watt bulb who's widely known for putting the "goober" in gubernatorial, keeps having to slip out of glitch after glitch of his own making. The most recent example involves a $2 million federal grant he received last year to fund a pet project that he said would help stop illegal trafficking into the U.S. from Mexico. His plan was to set up 200 webcams along our state's 1,200-mile Mexican border, declaring that this technology would let freelance Web watchers around the globe monitor border crossings. He promised that the virtual vigilance of these global "deputies" would lead to the arrests of 1,200 drug villains and 4,500 illegal immigrants a year.

But – oops! – the performance fell pitifully short of the promise. Only 15 of the 200 cameras were installed, and instead of 1,200 drug arrests, the program produced 11. Not 1,100 ... 11. Instead of 4,500 captured immigrants, only 300 were even detected. Eagle-eyed border watchers from as far away as Australia sent in such useful reports as "[I saw] an armadillo by the water," and, "I saw a spider crawl across the top of the camera."

The sheriff's department in El Paso – a hotbed of crossings – says it never got any useful information from the webcams. "Instead of making Texas safer," said El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, the camera scam "has made Texas the source of international ridicule."

Still, neither ridicule nor reality have stopped the political game-playing of the goober. Perry's office says there was merely a "glitch" in the border-watch process, and he wants another $2 million from the feds to keep his game going.

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