WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — They track criminals, protect their human partners and sniff out illegal drugs, and all they ask for in return is to chase their favorite ball.
“I don't know what we'd do without them. I mean that. It's just a huge part of what we do,” Wyoming Department of Public Safety Capt. Kip Snyder said as K-9 Azar chased a ball around a conference room.
Azar is one of four dogs on the Wyoming force whose future is in question now that recreational marijuana is legal in Michigan.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Recreational Marijuana in Michigan
Wyoming and several other police departments across West Michigan with K-9s are watching the courts in other states where recreational marijuana has been approved. At issue is the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Dogs like Azar are trained to find drugs. But they can't tell the difference between an illegal drug like cocaine and a now-legal drug like marijuana.
That problem has led judges in other parts of the country to question whether the dogs can provide reasonable cause for a search warrant.
While communities in other parts of the country and Canada are talking early retirement for police dogs, departments in West Michigan are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We have to start to certainly take a look at our practices as they have been, and now in the future. The Fourth Amendment is important,” Snyder said.
Some West Michigan departments are not changing their policy for K-9s, which cost between $8,000 and $12,000 to purchase and train.
“Case law does exist that trained and certified dogs may occasionally make false alerts, but that does not detract from the accepted notion that a certified dog’s alert creates a “fair probability” of contraband being present,” Allegan County Undersheriff Mike Larson said.
Michigan State Police have 55 K-9s on duty. The five newest are not trained to detect marijuana.
“The new law changes how and where we use our canines, but it will not require us to retire any dogs early from our Unit,” MSP spokesperson Shanon Banner stated in an email to 24 Hour News 8.
Banner said the trained dogs can still be used to detect marijuana in schools and other places where it remains illegal. Departments can also use the dogs to search out drugs after warrants have been issued.
“We're waiting to see what happens. And we're being patient. But certainly, moving forward with caution,” said Snyder, echoing the sentiments of most other West Michigan police departments with K-9 units.
While drug detection is the top job for most police dogs, they're also skilled at tracking suspects. Then there are the more personal skills the dogs have when it comes to building better police-community relations.
“We can make a school light up in a gymnasium on an afternoon with our dogs going in there and doing a demo,” Snyder explained. “People are just interested in it. Not just kids, but adults as well.”
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