Canine Witnesses Are Not to be Sniffed at

Published: 29th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th August 2014 11:30 PM   |  A+A-

Is the evidence of a sniffer admissible in an Indian court of law? The question recently came up in the Supreme Court for the final word. The issue rose when a local court awarded death penalty to a man for raping and later killing a 10-year-old girl in Karnataka nearly five years ago. A sniffer dog had tracked and identified the accused. The high court, however, acquitted him on grounds that sniffer dog’s evidence is insufficient to convict him. The state has now come to the apex court on appeal. In 2007 in a similar case, Bombay High Court had ruled that a sniffer dog’s evidence in a criminal case cannot be discarded.

The canine’s detecting abilities have been acknowledged since time immemorial. Bloodhounds have been used to trail human scent since Roman times. In the Middle Ages money was set aside in English villages for the upkeep of the parish constable’s bloodhounds that were used for hunting down outlaws. During the reign of King Henry I, the constable in charge of the Royal Palaces would “maintain the stables, kennels and mews for protecting and policing the whole court”. In France, dogs were used in the 14th century in St Malo. The word “sleuth” (meaning detective) has been derived from Scotland bloodhounds known as “Slough dogs” there. In modern times, one of the first real attempts to use of dogs was made by London police to track down serial killer Jack the Ripper.

Today, police forces all over the world use dogs for sniffing and tracking, but their role in the administration of criminal justice remains uncertain. Some US courts’ evidence of a trained bloodhound is legally admissible on the logic that its nose is lined with 230 million scent receptors—around 40 times more than the human nose. In India, however, judges are divided and the apex court will now have the final word on whether a dog can be treated as witness in a criminal trial and, if so, how much importance should be attached to it.

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