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.