Police dogs win in state's high court

Score one for the dogs.

The state’s top court Monday unanimously said a trial judge was correct in allowing a Richland County jury to hear evidence that a now-retired Columbia police tracking dog named Aurie located an armed robbery suspect in 2004.

Aurie, a German shepherd, found Gary A. White a short time after the robbery with the gun believed used in the robbery, the S.C. Supreme Court said in its ruling. White was convicted in 2005 and, because of the state’s “two strikes” law, was sentenced to life in prison.

White in his appeals contended the dog tracking evidence wasn’t reliable. But the Supreme Court disagreed.

“There was ample evidence concerning the training and reliability of the dog, Aurie,” Justice John Kittredge wrote for the court, noting the dog and his handler at the time of White’s trial had been partners for more than seven years and had conducted about 750 “tracks” together.

The court’s ruling for the first time established guidelines for S.C. judges to use in determining whether police dog tracking evidence is reliable, said those familiar with the case.

“It’s a victory for police dogs in the state of South Carolina,” said Columbia police Sgt. Andre Williams, who oversees the department’s K-9 unit. “It’s a huge case.”

The ruling comes as Columbia city officials are debating whether to do away with the police department’s K-9 and mounted patrol units. A total of 13 dogs and three horses could be laid off by July 1 because of budget shortfalls within the police department, The State newspaper reported Sunday.

Williams said he hopes Monday’s ruling will cause city officials to fund the K-9 unit. Most City Council members polled by The State said they would likely retain the dogs, though not the horses.

“It just goes to show how important a canine is to police work,” Williams said.

LaNelle DuRant, a state appellate defender who handled White’s appeal, said that although she was “disappointed in the end result” of Monday’s ruling, she agreed with the court’s establishment of guidelines in determining the reliability of dog tracking evidence.

“When you’re sending somebody away for life, it needs to be reliable,” she said.

DuRant described the case as a “novel” legal issue in South Carolina, noting other states have established similar guidelines for dog tracking evidence.

Aurie and his former handler, Officer Richard Gunter, tracked White, then 22, to a nearby wooded area a short time after the April 19, 2004, robbery at a convenience store at Garners Ferry Road and Old Woodlands Road, Williams said.

The court in its ruling gave this account of the robbery:

White, who drove to the store with two other men after midnight, held a gun to the neck of a store clerk while one of his accomplices stole cash, lottery tickets and an 18-pack of beer. A drunken White fell unconscious momentarily before being awakened by his accomplice and forcing the clerk toward the door.

A city officer who was pulling into the store lot spotted the clerk flagging him down, and one of the robbers, who later was identified as White, running away. Gunter and Aurie arrived on the scene about 30 minutes later and followed a scent trail to find White nearby “sleeping next to some bushes, gun in hand.”

A Richland County jury in June 2005 convicted White of two counts of armed robbery and one count of kidnapping, according to court and State Law Enforcement Division records. Circuit Judge James Barber sentenced White, who had a prior armed robbery conviction according to SLED records, to life in prison without parole under the state’s “two-strikes” law for violent offenders, DuRant said.

The state Court of Appeals later upheld the conviction.

The approximately 13-year-old Aurie, which the Supreme Court noted descended from a “bloodline of known police and military working dogs,” remains with his former handler, Gunter, after retiring in 2007, Williams said.

“He’s still in good health,” Williams said, adding, “He’s spoiled rotten.”

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