Drug arrests and prosecutions are on the rise in Benewah County.
Arrests for drug related activity more than doubled. The Benewah County Sheriff department made 123 drug related arrests in 2018. There were 45 such arrests in 2017; 40 arrests in 2016; 24 arrests in 2015.
“We had an average of 45 arrests [per year] the last five years,” Benewah County Sheriff David Resser said.
In 2018, Benewah County court prosecuted 395 drug related cases, more than double the previous two years combined. There were 186 drug related cases each in 2016 and 2017.
Of the 395 cases, 192 were for the use or possession of drug paraphernalia, and 113 were for the possession of marijuana.
“Marijuana is by far the most prevalent substance we encounter,” Sheriff Resser said. “Reason being, I think, is the close proximity to Washington.”
Idaho is increasingly surrounded by states with either recreational or medical marijuana laws. Utah signed medical marijuana legislation in 2018.
Increasing arrest rates correspond with increased legalization in other states. Oregon legalized in 2015, California in 2016, Nevada in 2017, Montana and Utah approved medical use in 2018. Each year saw increased drug related arrests in the county.
“Marijuana is not a first priority for the department because of the proximity to other states [where it is legal], but it is illegal here, so we are still going to cite and arrest,” Sheriff Resser said.
Less than three ounces of marijuana is classified as a misdemeanor in Idaho that carries possible penalties of $1,000, a year in jail or both. Possession of more than three ounces is a felony punishable by five yeas in prison and up $10,000 in fines.
“If it’s a user amount it’s usually just a citation,” Sheriff Resser said. “If they are in possession of enough to be trafficking then we are going to make that arrest. And after that it’s in the prosecutor’s hands.”
According to Benewah County court records only one incident of marijuana possession greater than three ounces occurred, and one drug trafficking case was prosecuted in 2018. The substance trafficked is not specified.
Sheriff Resser also credited better enforcement and county K-9 units.
The department has two drug dogs: Phoenix, partnered with Dept. Rodney Dickinson, and Raff, partnered with Deputy Dustin Pulley. The trained dogs are taught to seek out controlled substances and signal to their partners when they detect a scent.
“They are a fantastic tool,” Sheriff Resser said. “They are a blessing for us and the people but not for the perps.”
The success rate of narcotics dogs is unknown. Records are not kept by the department.
Speaking anonymously, three individuals subjected to unsuccessful K-9 searches spoke with the Gazette.
In two of those incidents there were factors which could have caused the dogs to commit what handlers call a false alert.
In one incident, the vehicle was a private purchase from Washington state and the previous owner was a medical marijuana patient. A second incident may have been attributable to the presence of food. The operator of that vehicle had picked up biscuits and gravy to-go at a St. Maries restaurant.
The vehicle operator in the third incident stated that there was no reason for the dog to alert on the vehicle. In all three incidents, additional searches of the vehicle and occupants found no evidence of a controlled substance and no citations were issued.
“I won’t say that a false alert won’t happen once in a while, but the training is extensive,” Sheriff Resser said. “In the years I have been in, most people who complain [about K-9 searches] are not telling the truth, which isn’t to say they are guilty, but there is probably a reason for the alert.”