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Drug Alerts from Police Dogs Aren't Probable Cause for Vehicle Search, Colorado Court Rules

With dogs trained to search for a wide array of drugs, and unable to distinguish between weed and meth, a Colorado appeals court decided that the state’s K9 cops’ finds are inadmissible in court.

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Drug dogs in Colorado may be looking for new lines of work soon, after a state Court of Appeals ruled that the highly trained canines’ inability to distinguish between legal marijuana and still-illicit substances makes their finely-tuned smelling senses obsolete, at least as far as car searches are concerned. 

According to the Grand Junction Sentinel, the Court of Appeals ruling stemmed from a 2015 traffic stop in which a drug-sniffing dog named Kilo led officers to search a man’s car and uncover drug paraphernalia, even though the man never gave permission for officers to search the vehicle.

The man was eventually convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia and a controlled substance. But this week, the conviction was overturned by the state’s three-judge panel thanks to the Centennial State’s legal weed laws and Kilo’s inability to speak. 

“Because Amendment 64 legalized possession for personal use of one ounce or less of marijuana by persons 21 years of age or older in Colorado, it is no longer accurate to say, at least as a matter of state law, that an alert by a dog which can detect marijuana — but not specific amounts — can reveal only the presence of ‘contraband,’” Judge Daniel Dailey wrote in the court’s ruling.

“A dog sniff could result in an alert with respect to something for which, under Colorado law, a person has a legitimate expectation of privacy,” the ruling added. “Because a dog sniff of a vehicle could infringe upon a legitimate expectation of privacy solely under state law, that dog sniff should now be considered a ‘search’ for purposes of (the amendment) where the occupants are 21 years or older.”

Drivers in Colorado can ride a little more comfortably now, knowing that, in addition to an overall decrease in cop-initiated searches, a barking drug dog won’t be enough to allow officers into their personal property.

As for Kilo and his canine cop coworkers, they’ll either need a new round of training to forget what weed smells like, or be left begging for kibbles and bits.