Colorado Supreme Court issues ruling in Craig drug dog case
A Craig drug possession case that was appealed all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court has major implications for drug-sniffing K-9 units across the state.
The court issued its ruling in the case of People vs. McKnight, a 2015 case wherein Craig Police Department and a Moffat County Sheriff’s K-9 named Kilo found a methamphetamine pipe after a search of Kevin Keith McKnight’s vehicle during a traffic stop.
McKnight was convicted on charges of possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, but his convictions were overturned in three separate state court of appeals opinions which said the original trial court should not have allowed evidence obtained by Kilo’s search.
“We hold that a sniff from a drug-detection dog that is trained to alert to marijuana constitutes a search under article II, section 7 of the Colorado Constitution because that sniff can detect lawful activity, namely the legal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and older,” the court’s ruling said. “We further hold that, in Colorado, law enforcement officers must have probable cause to believe that an item or area contains a drug in violation of state law before deploying a drug-detection dog that alerts to marijuana for an exploratory sniff. Because there was no such probable cause justifying Kilo’s search of McKnight’s truck, the trial court erred in denying McKnight’s motion to suppress.”
Moffat County Sheriff KC Hume said his office has since retired Kilo and hired a new K-9 handler and drug dog. Deputy Sgt. Courtland Folks, whose canine Kilo sparked the 2015 case, remains as the K-9 program’s manager at the sheriff’s office, Hume said.
According to council documents posted on the city’s website, the city of Craig is currently training its own dog for a one-time payment of about $4,000 to Folks, who has agreed to train Craig Police Department Cpl. Grant Laehr as the dog’s handler.
About a year’s worth of training would be needed before the dog would be added to the force for a typical working career of six to eight years. Annual vaccinations, veterinary care, and food will run CPD about $980, along with various one-time purchases for equipment, such as installation of a used cage for the dog’s canine vehicle, a heated outdoor kennel, leashes, harnesses, bowls, and other training equipment, costing a grand total of about $10,000.
“We currently do have a K-9 that’s on active duty with our new handler, deputy Nate Baker,” Hume said. “That K-9 is not trained to indicate to marijuana.”
Hume said the sheriff’s office K-9 program has been maturing and evolving since the passage of the constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana in Colorado.
“The landscape changed on a number of levels across our state,” Hume said.
Baker told Moffat County’s new drug dog is highly trained for Colorado’s modern marijuana laws.
“There’s a lot of training that’s involved in that,” Baker said. “We have only trained him in the odors of meth, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy.”
Baker said marijuana is now used as a training tool along with other scents like cats, toys, and latex gloves to make sure Moffat County’s K-9 doesn’t alert to marijuana.
“We use that as more or less a distraction and make sure he’s not indicating something that he’s not supposed to be indicating to,” Baker said of marijuana.
Newly-elected Councilman Paul James, whose candidacy for council was based almost entirely on recreational marijuana legalization, said he had been watching the case and was pleased with the ruling.
James sees Monday’s ruling as evidence that laws criminalizing marijuana will continue to change.
“We’ve seen this more and more,” James said. “Soon, we’ll see not being able to drug test people for employment. At this point, I think it’s discrimination. I don’t like that word. I don’t like to just throw that around. But, it really is discrimination.”
James has little sympathy for marijuana-sniffing dogs essentially being forced to retire from police departments across the state.
“I don’t have too much sympathy for that,” James said. “I have sympathy for the taxpayers who will have to buy new dogs. But they should have never criminalized people for a victimless crime in the first place.”