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Police Complaints Board Releases Report on D.C. Police Canine Patrol Unit

Thursday, July 8, 2021
Report examines the Department’s use of marijuana trained drug detection canines

(Washington, DC) – The District of Columbia Police Complaints Board (PCB), the governing body of the Office of Police Complaints (OPC), today released a report to Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Council of the District of Columbia and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Robert J. Contee addressing concerns with MPD’s Canine Patrol Unit (CPU) and their deployment of canines trained in marijuana detection for sweeps or searches of people or vehicles.

OPC has received several complaints regarding unlawful vehicle searches by MPD officers assigned to the Department’s CPU known as Canine Handlers. These officers can deploy trained canines for patrol, which involves tracking and apprehending suspects; and detection, which involves narcotics, firearms, and explosives. The canines are trained to detect marijuana, methamphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine, and heroine.

As a result of the complaints filed with OPC, the agency reviewed MPD’s General Order 306.01 on utilizing trained law enforcement canines and Special Order 15-07 on the legal possession or transfer of up to two ounces or less of marijuana for recreational purposes for persons 21 years or older.

Special Order 15-07 states that MPD officers “shall not request or apply for a search warrant if the sole basis for its issuance would be the possession or transfer of marijuana under the legal limit of two ounces.” Additionally, under this order MPD officers cannot establish reasonable suspicion based on the smell of marijuana on anyone 21 years or older because it could constitute a legal possession.

In a recent complaint filed with OPC alleging an unlawful vehicle search by a drug detection canine deployed by a CPU Canine Handler, OPC learned the canine detected the odor of narcotics but was unable to distinguish which one. This led to the officers searching the vehicle in which they only found marijuana.  OPC also learned that the Canine Handler was unaware of any canine implications as it relates to Special Order 15-07 or any policy updates regarding sweeps for marijuana trained detection canines and therefore conducted the same process that was in place before the legalization of recreational marijuana.

The PCB is concerned with the current training and deployment practices of the CPU, specifically MPD’s lack of guidance to their Canine Handlers and other officers on how to comply with Special Order 15-07. To that end, the PCB recommends the following to help improve and facilitate better relations and increase trust between MPD and community members:

  • MPD should not deploy canines trained in marijuana detection in any way that would infringe upon the rights of the public, such as for sweeps or searches of persons or vehicles. 
  • After probable cause has been established, MPD may deploy marijuana trained canines for a sweep, but probable cause must be established prior to and independently from utilizing a canine trained in marijuana detection.
  • MPD should no longer train canines in marijuana detection at the academy, and any certification processes should no longer be dependent on the canine’s ability to detect marijuana. 
  • Any canines trained in marijuana detection that are currently employed by the MPD Canine Patrol Unit should be retired or repurposed for other departmental purposes and no longer be used as drug detection dogs. 
  • If MPD has or acquires any canine that has the ability to distinguish between the legal and illegal possession of marijuana and the possession of other illegal drugs would not be subject to this policy recommendation.  However, the canine should undergo more frequent recertification processes and it should not be recommended to deploy them for sweeps, acting in an abundance of caution to protect against any risk of infringing on the reasonable expectation of privacy that DC residents have to lawfully possess marijuana.
  • MPD should update General Order 306.01and General Order 901.07 to reflect the above recommendations to ensure that the rights of community members who are abiding by the District’s Special Order 15-07 are protected and are uncompromised by drug detection canine deployment. 

There are real concerns with MPD’s current process regarding canine sweeps or searches of vehicles to detect marijuana,” said Michael G. Tobin, OPC’s executive director. “MPD must implement and enforce an updated policy on this issue and ensure their officers are trained on how to correctly apply the policy.”

To view the full report, visit www.policecomplaints.dc.gov.