Colorado Court Deems Weed Smell Insufficient Evidence for Car Search

Colorado Court Deems Weed Smell Insufficient Evidence for Car Search

A court ruling in the Colorado Court of Appeals has changed the foundation upon which drug cases will be convicted in the future. A panel of 3 judges decided that drug sniffing dogs that have been trained to alert officers about the presence of marijuana cannot lead police officers to search a vehicle without permission. In other states with legal marijuana, such as California and Arizona, this precedent has already been set. Now the ruling has reached Colorado and it forces police officers to regard marijuana use as a personal decision that doesn’t warrant a search.

Cannabis a Private Matter in Colorado

scent of marijuana alone is no longer enough to warrant vehicular search in colorado
The scent of marijuana alone is no longer enough to warrant a vehicular search in Colorado.

The ruling came after a case passed through the court regarding an individual who had his truck inspected. Kevin McKnight’s truck was searched by officers after Kilo, a drug sniffing dog, alerted officers to the pretense of an illicit substance. Kilo had been trained to detect cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis. Because he is a dog and unable to communicate to officers exactly which substance he is smelling, he cannot provide the adequate evidence to warrant a search. The smell of marijuana alone does not warrant a search in the state where it has been legalized for recreational use for adults over 21. Many expect their marijuana use to be a personal, private matter.

No Searches Solely on Basis of Marijuana Smell

The court made its decision clear in its ruling, allowing residents to maintain a sense of equilibrium and privacy. “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,” judges wrote in the court ruling. “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’ … where the occupants are 21 years or older.” Where other factors are involved however, the smell of marijuana may warrant a search, but not as a factor on its own.

A New Precedent

police dogs trained to smell drugs cannot authorize a vehicle search in colorado
Police in Colorado will need more than a dog picking up an odor to search a car.

McKnight’s 2015 search led to an arrest and ultimately resulted in him being charged for possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance. Kilo detected the scent of some illicit substance although it is not clear what that scent was specifically. When the vehicle was searched, a pipe was found that is usually used to smoke meth. The charges were ultimately the result of the search led by Kilo, which has now been rendered illegal. It is likely that more cases such as this one will spring forth as this new precedent has been set.

Cases such as these are likely to spread across the country as the legalization of recreational marijuana continues to pass in other states. As it stands, 8 states have ended prohibition and legalized the plant for adult use. This number continues to grow and all the latest polls suggest that the majority of Americans are in favor of legalization. Defining the rules of how the laws will play out in the aftermath of prohibition is just one of the growing pains in the direction of legalizing the plant in the future.


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