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Can New York Police Officers Search a Car if They Smell Marijuana?

On July 31, 2019, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York drug case discussing whether police officers can search a person’s car if they smell marijuana. Ultimately, the court concluded that the search was permissible because the smell of marijuana gives rise to probable cause to search the vehicle. With that said, as more states relax the laws prohibiting the possession of marijuana, courts across the country are rethinking this holding.

According to the court’s opinion, police officers stopped a vehicle in which the defendant was a passenger. Once the officers stopped the car, they claimed the smell of marijuana was “emanating from the vehicle” upon their approach. The police officers ordered the driver and two passengers, one of whom was the defendant, out of the vehicle. The officers searched the defendant, put him in handcuffs, and placed him in the back of their squad car. They then searched the car, finding a small amount of marijuana in the car’s ashtray as well as 16 packets of cocaine in the rear of the vehicle, near where the defendant was sitting.

The defendant, charged with possession of cocaine, filed a motion to suppress the cocaine. The defendant argued that the police officers lacked probable cause to search the vehicle. He also claimed that the cocaine should be suppressed because he was illegally handcuffed and placed in the back of the police car. The defendant did not contest the validity of the traffic stop; only the officer’s decision to search the vehicle.

The court, however, rejected the defendant’s arguments, relying on a line of cases holding that officers have probable cause to search a car if they smell marijuana. The court also explained that any potential unlawful detention of the defendant did not warrant suppression of the evidence because the officers developed probable cause to search the car before the arrest. Thus, the court affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

While the court accepted the prosecution’s argument, courts in other states have started to reject the idea that the smell of marijuana justifies the search of a vehicle. These courts cite the fact that many people are legally in possession of marijuana and that the smell of marijuana may not be indicative of criminal activity. However, this case shows that, while the law has come a long way regarding the criminalization of marijuana, there is still progress to be made.

Have You Been Arrested for a New York Drug Crime?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a New York drug possession offense, contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Tilem & Associates. At Tilem & Associates, we understand the impact that a criminal conviction can have on our clients’ lives, and treat every case as though it was our own. We also keep abreast of all legal developments, in New York and across the country, to keep an eye on national trends that may be beneficial to our clients’ cases. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation with one of our knowledgeable attorneys, call 877-377-8666 today.