On Monday, May 20, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that police must now require probable cause before they are able to deploy dogs trained to detect marijuana. This places yet another divide between how the state of Colorado and the federal law choose to investigate marijuana.
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that any dog trained to alert to marijuana cannot be used until the officer establishes probable cause that an actual crime has been committed.
In the past, since the seventies, in fact, police dogs were trained to alert the handler if there was a presence of marijuana in the vicinity. However, since Coloradans voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, the “drug dogs” have been a topic of discussion.
These dogs that have been trained to sniff out marijuana cannot simply be untrained to do so.
The drug dog’s effectiveness obviously comes down to the breed and the dog itself, but once the dog “knows” what it’s looking for, with a nose that can detect a compound at five parts per billion, there is no “unknowing” for many of these trained animals.
How Does the New Ruling Affect Drug Charges in Colorado?
The new ruling essentially makes the highly-trained dogs worthless for the sake of what they’re trained for. You see, for decades, police departments have heavily relied on the dog’s alert to provide the officers with probable cause. Now, it seems it’s the other way around. Now, there has to be enough evidence to authorize the use of the dogs. This, in a lot of ways, makes the “sniff test” useless.
This new law holds the officers with K-9s to the same standard that every other search and seizure is held to in Colorado.
What does this mean? This means a search warrant. A search warrant is needed before any dog can do a sniff test from here on out in the state of Colorado.
Supreme Court Justice William Hood stated that the dog’s sniffs, to some extent, intrude on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy, so this invasion must be justified by some degree of suspicion of criminal activity.
Phasing Out Drug Dogs
Before the Colorado Supreme Court decision, however, law enforcement agencies had already begun to retire the marijuana-trained dogs. Less than 20 percent of the dogs used by Colorado law enforcement are trained to sniff out marijuana.
Federal Laws vs Colorado Laws
It’s important to note that this decision does not affect the federal law enforcement agencies that work in Colorado. These decisions only apply at the state level and cannot be appealed to the federal court.
This decision is made complicated mostly because of the discrepancy between the federal laws and Colorado state laws, as the federal laws outlaw marijuana in any amount.
Reasons for Legal Change in Colorado
The case stems from an incident that happened in 2015. In short, a police officer stopped a suspicious truck. The officer requested that a K-9 conduct a sniff test of said truck, and the K-9 alerted to drugs. When deputies searched the truck, again because the sniff test provided probable cause, they found a meth pipe. Police then arrested the driver, who was later convicted of two drug possession charges.
The defendant’s attorney appealed the sentence on the grounds that the dog was trained to sniff out cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine, as well as marijuana. The dogs are not trained to give their handler a signal for each different type of “drug.” The dog could have very well been alerting the marijuana, which is legal in the state of Colorado, which, in fact, would not have given law enforcement probable cause to search the vehicle.
The court reversed the decision. There was no way to know if the dog was alerting illegal drugs or a legal amount of marijuana.
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