Scent-sational Lawsuit

A dog handler in Texas who uses scent to identify suspects in crimes has been named in two lawsuits. In one case Calvin Lee Miller...

Horst Hoefinger  |  Jul 13th 2009


A dog handler in Texas who uses scent to identify suspects in crimes has been named in two lawsuits.

In one case Calvin Lee Miller filed after being misidentified by Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Pikett in a robbery case. Pikett is the only dog handler in Texas who uses this technique and defense attorneys argue it is not a precise science.

The suits against Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Pikett were filed by Calvin Lee Miller, who spent 62 days in jail for robbery and sexual assault before being cleared, and a former Victoria County Sheriff’s captain who became a murder suspect before another man pleaded guilty in the case.

Pikett’s work figured in both cases, the Victoria Advocate reported Sunday. For example: In the case involving Miller, a swab from Miller and the scent from the assault victim’s sheets were sent to Pikett, whose three bloodhounds indicated Miller’s scent was on the sheets.

No laws or regulations govern scent lineups, but they’re admissible in courts across the nation. Only tighter oversight can keep shoddy scent IDs from becoming key evidence, a growing number of critics say.

“This is junk science. This isn’t even science. This is just junk,” said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas. The group works to free wrongfully convicted inmates and recently started to investigate Pikett.

The premise for scent identification revolves around two things: Dogs have a keen sense of smell – sometimes 10,000 times more sensitive than humans – and everyone has a unique scent.

Supporters say it can be a reliable and important part of law enforcement when lineups are closely regulated and human interaction is limited.

Critics contend scent IDs are easily influenced by human involvement such as the use of a leash during a lineup; the presence of many scents on evidence or in scent lineups; and the fact that humans must speak for dogs in court.

Even supporters say great care must be taken if scent lineups are to be considered reliable.

“As a dog handler, you’d better be acting as a scientist,” said Steve Nicely, a police dog handler who has since served as a defense witness. “Otherwise, you’re acting on myth and folklore.”

A list for scent lineups is currently being drafted by The Scientific Working Group for Dog and Orthogonal Detection Guidelines. I never even realized that this was a science, let alone one being used in court.

While it may have a place in the legal system there obviously needs to be very strict guidelines. It most certainly shouldn’t be the only thing a conviction is based on, as evidenced by the two cases above.

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