“Probable cause on four legs.” That’s the cop nickname for drug dogs, which need to do nothing more than something only perceptible to the officer/trainer to allow officers to engage in warrantless searches. For years, drug dogs and the “odor of marijuana” have allowed both cops and dogs to follow their noses to all sorts of otherwise-unconstitutional searches, much to the delight of law enforcement and its desire to make easy busts and seize cash.
Then came the creeping menace of legalized marijuana, which meant cops in some states could no longer assume the odor of marijuana was reasonably suspicious enough to convert pretextual stops into full-blown searches. These legal changes also promised to put their dogs out of business because they were trained to detect weed along with other illicit substances. With marijuana no longer necessarily illicit, the dogs became more of a problem than a solution. As far too many law enforcement officials claimed, the legalization meant the literal death of drug dogs, rather than just a speed bump on the road to warrantless searches.
Marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2012. And yet, cops still use drug dogs that obviously cannot indicate via an “alert” whether it has detected now-legal weed or something still actually illegal under state law. That inability to tell officers “hey, I detected a legal substance” is now causing problems for drug convictions and their underlying drug dog-enabled searches.
The Colorado Court of Appeals has just ruled [PDF] that a drug dog alert no longer generates the required amount of probable cause necessary to allow cops to engage in deeper, broader searches of people and their property. (via FourthAmendment.com)
Here’s how it began:
In 2017, drug task force investigators were following a suspected “high level” drug dealer when he visited Restrepo’s house. After the drug dealer drove away, some members of the task force stopped him; they found firearms and a quarter pound of methamphetamine in his vehicle. At some point, the drug dealer told officers that he had been at Restrepo’s house to sell him methamphetamine, as a customer.
Meanwhile, other members of the task force remained watching Restrepo’s house. When Restrepo left in his car, they followed for a couple of hours. During that time, the task force “decided to make a traffic stop.” After Restrepo rolled through a stop sign, the task force asked Jeremy Sheldon, a uniformed officer with the canine unit of the Colorado Springs Police Department, to stop Restrepo’s car. During the stop, Officer Sheldon patted Restrepo down and found $1,200 in Restrepo’s pocket. He then commanded his dog to perform a drug sniff of Restrepo’s vehicle. The dog, trained to alert to marijuana as well as to other controlled substances, alerted to Restrepo’s car. Officer Sheldon then searched the vehicle and found suspected methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia in a backpack in the backseat.
The district court saw nothing wrong with this and refused to suppress the evidence. It said the dog’s ability to also detect illicit substances gave the cops permission to perform the search of the backpack. In effect, the court told cops it was okay to use dogs that detected legal substances to generate probable cause to search for illegal substances. But it did rule that the sniff itself was not supported by reasonable suspicion. For whatever reason, it combined these two almost-contradictory conclusions into a single ruling that allowed the state to keep the evidence it recovered from the backpack.
The Appeals Court says this ruling is wrong. Since marijuana is legal — and drug dogs trained to detect this odor will continue to detect it — cops must have more to go on before they bring a drug dog into the mix. They must have probable cause to justify the deployment of a drug dog to sniff for contraband. It’s no longer acceptable to run one around a stopped car or their belongings just because you happen to have one on hand.
When a dog trained to alert to both marijuana and illegal drugs alerts, the handler does not know if the dog is alerting to contraband or to a legal amount of marijuana. See McKnight II, ¶ 35. Therefore, a dog sniff from a dog trained to detect marijuana is a search under article II, section 7; it intrudes on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy in lawful activity. Id. at ¶¶ 43,
Accordingly, there must be probable cause to believe a vehicle contains illegal narcotics under state law before deploying a drug detection dog trained to alert to marijuana.
There was no probable cause here. All the cops had at that point was an unverified assertion from an alleged drug dealer in their custody that drugs had been sold to Restrepo. What they didn’t have was anything allowing them to escalate the pretextual stop to a full-blown search. The drug dog’s alert changed nothing.
The evidence seized from the backpack vanishes, along with the conviction. And cops in Colorado are on notice they’ll need to develop probable cause before they bring a drug dog in or risk losing their evidence in the future. Probable cause no longer walks on four legs in Colorado.
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