In an important decision delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a police officer lacks the constitutional authority to stop a motor vehicle simple because the smell of marijuana smoke is emanating from the inside of the car. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rodriguez.
In 2008, Massachusetts voters decriminalized the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, although such possession still constitutes a civil infraction. Since small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized, Massachusetts appellate court have struggled to reinterpret the rules that apply to motor vehicle stops based on a belief that a car contains marijuana. For instance, the Supreme Judicial Court has held that when the police stop a car and then smell an odor of burnt marijuana coming from inside, the officers may no longer ask the occupants to exit the vehicle. The SJC has also ruled that the odor of burnt or unburnt marijuana does not allow police officers to search a car absent a search warrant.
This case presents the newest wrinkle regarding marijuana litigation in Massachusetts. In April of 2012, a New Bedford police detective was driving behind a car that smelled like burnt marijuana. For that reason, the detective stopped the car and approached the driver, who was holding what appeared to be a marijuana cigar. The driver told the detective that his cigar was causing the burnt marijuana odor. As the stop progressed, the police discovered a baggie containing 60 Percocet pills inside the car and one of the passengers was charged with possessing the pills with intent to distribute them.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the Percocet pills, arguing that the police did not have the authority to stop the car to begin with, and it was the illegal stop that allowed for the discovery of his illegal drugs. A district court judge denied the defendant’s motion and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed to review the case.
The Court started its analysis by pointing out the smell of marijuana smoke in a car does not necessarily mean marijuana is present. Because clothes or other items previously exposed to marijuana smoke continue to smell like marijuana, a police officer cannot determine whether there is marijuana in the car or not. Therefore, a police officer who smells marijuana in a car does not have probable cause to believe the occupants are possessing marijuana and thereby committing a civil infraction.
The Court then discussed three policy goals related to the decriminalization of marijuana: to reduce consequences for possession of small amounts of marijuana; to compel police officers to use their time to investigate serious crime; and to save taxpayer money that was previously used to target and prosecute small amounts of marijuana. None of these three policy goals are advanced by allowing a police officer to stop a motor vehicle simply because it smells like marijuana. Therefore, the Court ruled the stop of the car in this case was unconstitutional and the Percocets, as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” are inadmissible at the defendant’s trial.
This was an unexpected decision in my view. I thought the Court would rationalize that the smell of marijuana is sufficient to stop a motor vehicle simply to ensure that the driver is not under the influence of the drug (as driving under the influence is still a crime). The police unions will not be happy with this ruling, as a real public safety concern will now exist.