Dog searches an ongoing challenge

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The concerns about evidence suppression that led local prosecutors to drop charges in a Moffat County marijuana bust is an ongoing issue for police canine handlers nationwide, experts say.

"Suppression is something that faces every handler, every time they make an arrest," said Russ Hess, executive director of the U.S. Police Canine Association.

Moffat County Sheriff's Dep--uties used a canine to search a vehicle after a traffic stop in early November.

Deputies said they found 30 pounds of marijuana in the vehicle. But on Wednesday, the district attorney announced the three Wisconsin men arrested after the search would not be charged with a crime.

Prosecutors said they weren't sure the deputies' search would stand up to a legal challenge during an evidence suppression hearing, Chief Deputy District Attorney Amy Fitch said.

Deputies used the dog to search the vehicle because the driver, according to reports by deputies, gave deceptive answers about where he was going.

But after discussions with the Colorado Attorney General's Office and federal officials, Fitch said prosecutors weren't sure that suspicious behavior by the driver justified a search of the vehicle.

Hess, who spent 30 years in law enforcement --15 as a canine handler --said in cases that rely heavily on evidence found during canine searches, suppression hearings are often the most important part of the trial.

If the evidence is admitted, it usually isn't hard for prosecutors to get a conviction, Hess said.

But if the canine search doesn't stand up to legal scrutiny and evidence is thrown out, it can be impossible to get a conviction, Hess said.

"Without the evidence, most of the time you don't have a case," he said.

Although it's sometimes a challenge to determine whether a canine search is legal, dogs are an invaluable law enforcement tool, Hess said.

"It's like having a set of X-ray eyes like Superman had," Hess said.

Craig Police Officer Alvin Luker has been a canine handler for about three years.

Knowing when there is "reasonable suspicion" to search a car is a challenge, Luker said. But working with his black Labrador, Fury, is well worth the challenge, he said.

"I don't think I would ever want to go out without one again," Luker said.

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