Legal evidence provided by K9s, admissible in SA Courts or not?

Most of us have heard about the anti poaching dogs, explosive or drug sniffing dogs and a host of other specially trained hard working K9s. Have you ever thought about whether the danger they face, the years of the training and hard work pays off in a court of law? Is their evidence admissible?

According to the information that we found on it is, provided certain conditions are met.

Relevance of Evidence

Evidence identified and found by K9s is relevant and admissible in court if it makes the existence of any fact, more probable or less probable, than it would be without that evidence.

K9 evidence can therefore be relevant if it:

  • Identifies an exhibit;
  • Establishes a relationship between suspects;
  • Demonstrates a relationship between a suspect and a crime scene;
  • Establishes a relationship between a suspect and an exhibit;
  • Establishes a relationship between a crime scene and an exhibit
  • Identifies an instrument used to commit the crime;
  • Establishes a relationship between a suspect and an instrument used to commit the crime.

The Training and History of the K9 & Handler
Whilst a successful partnership between a handler and their K9 is essential to their success, the subjectivity involved in a handler’s interpretation of the dog’s actions or expressions could prove problematic in the eyes of the law. To this end, a proper foundation needs to be laid for evidence to accepted as reliable and relevant. To do this, proof of the handler’s and dog’s training and ability and qualifications are vital. Most importantly it needs to be demonstrated that the circumstances regarding the use of the K9 team are relevant to the case, and the use of the K9 should also not infringe on the defendant’s constitutional rights.

To prove the training and qualifications of the K9 a full record is kept of training, health and performance. It should date and details every training session (yes every single one!) Notes should also be kept of every success in identifying the target the K9 is trained for as well as record of “misses”.

To demonstrate the training and antecedents of the dog, you should maintain a record of the dog’s history including its training, health and performance. The record should state and describe each training session and any certification that the dog may have. In the record, you should also document every effort of the dog to detect an object or substance which you have trained it to detect and its success in doing so. Also include the error rate of the dog in the records.

Courts would also like to know the breed of the dog in order to determine whether they can consider it as having an acute sense of smell. Courts consider the dog’s training and certification to be prima facie evidence that the dog is reliable. The burden is then shifted to the person objecting to the admissibility of the canine evidence to prove that the dog is not reliable.

Admissibility of evidence found by K9s

In summary, the following principles govern the admissibility of canine evidence –

  • It must be relevant.
  • It must be reliable.
  • The court must treat the evidence with utmost caution and the prosecution should give it the fullest explanation.
  • The human handler must not try to explore the inner workings of the dog’s mind.
  • The human handler must be qualified by training and experience to handle the dog and interpret its actions.
  • The prosecution must not rely solely on anecdotes regarding the dog’s capabilities, all K9 evidence must be corroborated.

Did you know that Kruger National Park runs a project called K9 Watchdog? Read our next blog post to find out more.

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