In era of legal marijuana, can police search cars based on odor?Posted by On


Sniff and search is no longer the default for police in some of the 33 states that have legalized marijuana.

Traditionally, an officer could use the merest whiff of weed to justify a warrantless vehicle search, and whatever turned up — pot, other kinds of illegal drugs, something else the motorist wasn’t allowed to have — could be used as evidence in court.

That’s still true in the minority of states where marijuana remains verboten.

But the legal analysis is more complicated in places where pot has been approved for medical or adult use, and courts are beginning to weigh in.

The result is that, in some states, a police officer who sniffs out pot isn’t necessarily allowed to go through someone’s automobile — because the odor by itself is no longer considered evidence of a crime.

“It’s becoming more difficult to say, ‘I smell marijuana, I can search the car.’ It’s not always an automatic thing,” said Kyle Clark, who oversees drug impairment recognition training programs at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

For nearly 100 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized an “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, giving law enforcement the right to conduct a warrantless search if there is reason to suspect a vehicle is hiding contraband or evidence of a crime. Police have long used the exception to conduct vehicle searches based on the pungent, distinctive odor of pot.

Increasingly, motorists in states where marijuana is legal in some form are pushing back when police insist on a search — especially if that search yields evidence of a crime.

Last month, a Pennsylvania judge declared that state police didn’t have a valid legal reason for searching a car just because it smelled like cannabis, since the front-seat passenger had a medical marijuana card. The search yielded a loaded handgun and a small amount of marijuana in an unmarked plastic baggie — evidence the judge suppressed.

“The ‘plain smell’ of marijuana alone no longer provides authorities with probable cause to conduct a search of a subject vehicle,” Lehigh County Judge Maria Dantos wrote, because it’s “no longer indicative of an illegal or criminal act.”

She said that once the passenger presented his medical marijuana card, it was “illogical, impractical and unreasonable” for troopers to conclude a crime had been committed.

Prosecutors have appealed the ruling, arguing the…

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