New Jersey Superior Court Rules the Nose is Not Enough for Arson Conviction


On July 11, 2016, the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed the conviction of an alleged arsonist, vacated her sentence, and remanded the case for a new trial. State v. Satoris, No. A-1079-13T1, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1605 (Super. Ct. App. Div. July 11, 2016). In 2013, defendant Cheryl Satoris was convicted of third-degree arson. She appealed the conviction, arguing that she was entitled to a new trial because the trial court erroneously permitted the state to introduce evidence concerning a canine’s detection of an accelerant on evidence removed from her home.

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey agreed with the defendant, finding that the trial court disregarded the guidelines of NFPA 921, which state “in order for the presence of absence of an ignitable liquid to be scientifically confirmed in a sample, that sample should be analyzed in a laboratory. Any canine alert not confirmed by laboratory analysis should not be considered validated.” Despite this guideline, the trial court permitted evidence of the canine’s positive alert even though “…everything the dog reacted to as being an ignitable liquid substance was brought to the lab and the lab confirmed there was no ignitable liquid substance on any of those items.” Likewise, the court stated that the canine’s handler should not have been permitted to testify as an expert regarding the uncorroborated canine alert. Significantly, this testimony was the only direct proof that an accelerant was used to start the fire.

The court’s ruling confirms that, while a canine’s detection of an accelerant is sometimes useful in the prosecution of an arson case, as stated in NFPA 921, that detection must be validated by a laboratory prior to being admitted into evidence.

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