Maryland Court Of Special Appeals Holds That Police Canine Handlers Must Be Vetted As Experts Witnesses Prior To Testifying At Trial

In September, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued an important decision in the case of Simpson v. State of Maryland, holding that testimony at trial by handlers regarding observations of a trained canine must meet the requirements of expert testimony.

In Simpson, the defendant, William Siam Simpson, III, was accused of setting the home of his former girlfriend’s family on fire on several occasions. After being identified by the victim following one of these incidents, Prince George’s County Police went to Simpson’s home, accompanied by a canine to detect the odor of flammable accelerants. Upon arriving at Simpson’s home, the canine alerted to the presence of accelerants on the driver’s door handle and trunk’s keyhole of Simpson’s car.

At trial, the State called a fireman “with collateral duties as an accelerant canine detection handler” to testify. The fireman testified extensively to the training received by his canine partner in the detection of accelerants and the alerts given by the canine at Simpson’s home. Simpson was ultimately convicted of attempted second degree arson- and was sentenced to ten years incarceration, with all but two years suspended.

On appeal, Simpson argued that the trial court had erred by overruling his objection to testimony by the fireman regarding his observations of a canine that had been trained to detect the presence of fire accelerants. Specifically, Simpson claimed that the fireman had not been identified as an expert witness prior to trial and had not been accepted as an expert at trial, therefore his testimony regarding the canine’s alerts should have been excluded.

Generally, Maryland law prohibits the admission of lay opinion testimony that is based upon specialized knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education if the witness has not been classified as an expert and the defense has not been provided a report by the expert. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether the fireman’s testimony at trial regarding his observations of the canine that had been trained to detect the presence of fire accelerants was, in fact, expert testimony.

The Court held that, because the “ability of a dog to alert to accelerants or other contraband ‘is not an inherent characteristic, but one that must be instilled into the animal through arduous training,’ and because the canine’s handler must be qualified to interpret the dog’s actions signifying an alert” the fireman’s observations of his canine qualified as expert testimony.

The Court concluded that the trial court had, in fact, erred, in admitting the fireman’s testimony at trial. Ultimately, however, the Court did not disturb Simpson’s conviction, as it determined that there was ample corroborative evidence to support Simpson’s connection to the charged crime, and the admission of the fireman’s testimony was therefore harmless error.

As this blog has discussed before, recent decisions by the Supreme Court have significant implications for criminal defendants seeking to challenge warrantless searches based upon canine sniffs. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been charged with a crime. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.