In a move that has state police in an uproar, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that the smell of unburned pot in a car isn’t enough of a reason for cops to search it because the state decriminalized small amounts back in 2008. Basically: because some amounts of pot possession aren’t a crime, the cops can’t use the smell of weed to justify their search.
Not only that, but the court pointed out that they made a similar ruling three years ago, deciding that the smell of raw weed wasn’t enough to justify the search of someone on the street. According to the judges: the police should “focus their attention elsewhere.”
“The 2008 initiative decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana under State law, and accordingly removed police authority to arrest individuals for civil violations,” Justice Barbara Lenk wrote in the unanimous ruling. “We have held that the odor of burnt marijuana alone cannot support probable cause to search a vehicle without a warrant … we hold that such odor, standing alone, does not provide probable cause to search an automobile.”
Lenk also pointed out that police don’t even have a right to search someone’s car based on the smell of pot under federal law either.
“The fact that such conduct is technically subject to a Federal prohibition does not provide an independent justification for a warrantless search,” Lenk wrote.
The ruling stems from the arrest of Matthew Overmyer, who was illegally searched by cops after a car crash. The police said they smelled unburned marijuana at the time.
Predictably, cops are completely flustered by the ruling.
“How is it any different from stopping somebody with an odor of alcohol on their breath?” asked Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, tell the Boston Herald. “The same principle should apply.”
Probably because the smell of unburned marijuana would imply that it hasn’t been used, whereas the smell of booze on someone’s breath would be a direct correlation to their usage of the substance. But hey, they are cops so logic isn’t always their strong suit.
“Rulings like this do nothing but handcuff the good guys and free the ones that want to go out and commit crimes against us,” said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. “It is becoming harder and harder for cops to do their jobs and easier for criminals to get the cover they need.”
But others say this is a way to curb the abuses of police forces, who often use the smell of marijuana to justify illegal stops and seizures.
“We’ve seen a lot of abuse by law enforcement officials who use (the odor of marijuana) as an excuse to unreasonably search people who are otherwise not exhibiting any signs of committing a crime,” said Erik Altieri, NORML spokesman.