The nosiest detective

Colorado law limits use of drug-sniffing dogs


Fury, the Craig Police Department's black lab, is getting a reputation for his sniffer.

The department's crime-fighting dog can smell methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and heroin. But the more Fury makes his rounds around vehicles passing through Craig's city limits, the more potential criminals are getting wise to the practice, police say.

A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that would allow police to use drug-sniffing dogs on any vehicle pulled over for a traffic violation won't change vehicle search laws here.

Colorado law states that police need "reasonable suspicion" to allow a drug dog to sniff around a vehicle, and the recent ruling doesn't overturn that, Police Chief Walt Vanatta said.

"The Colorado Supreme Court gives a higher expectation of privacy in vehicles," he said. "My opinion is the Colorado Supreme Court tends to be more restrictive than other courts. That's not necessarily good or bad."

According to state law, police officers have to have "reasonable suspicion" to allow a drug-sniffing dog to walk around and sniff a vehicle. Reasonable suspicion, however, isn't clearly defined by the law. It can mean that an officer smells drugs coming from the car, sees paraphernalia inside the vehicle or has reason to believe that a driver might be under the influence of narcotics, among other reasons. After an officer determines there is reasonable suspicion, a drug-sniffing dog can be sent around the vehicle. If the dog "alerts"-- meaning pawing and whining on a particular part of the vehicle -- it's determined that an officer has developed probable cause to search the vehicle.

However, because of Colorado's loosely defined law, an officer's definition of probable cause is regularly challenged in court.

"It's complicated," Officer Alvin Luker said. "You have to take each step at a time.

"If you do one thing that's illegal (in a search), it's all illegal after that," he said.

The high court's Jan. 24 ruling states that police can use drug-sniffing dogs on any vehicle that is pulled over for legitimate reasons as long as the stop is not prolonged.

Some dissenters have warned that if police need no evidence of narcotics to check vehicles for drugs, they will expand searches beyond motorists.

But Luker said already with the local long-term presence of a drug-sniffing dog, some motorists have gotten savvier about hiding evidence of narcotics in their vehicles. The Moffat County Sheriff's Department also uses a drug-sniffing dog.

"It would make it a lot easier," Luker said if the ruling applied locally. Luker estimated about 30 percent to 40 percent of states could have broader powers to use drug-sniffing dogs as a result of the ruling.

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