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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules, Yet Again, That Evidence of a Small Amount of Marijuana in a Car Does Not Give Police the Right to Search

In reversing a district court judge’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today repeated what has become a familiar rule – the police cannot search a motor vehicle because there is evidence of the presence of a small amount of marijuana.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Sheridan.

The defendant was charged with possessing marijuana with intent to distribute following an interaction with a Quincy police officer in June of 2011.  The police officer stopped the defendant’s minivan for driving in the middle of the night without an illuminated headlight.  As the officer approached the van, the defendant appeared extremely nervous.  A state trooper arrived on the scene and walked up to the passenger side window where he saw, in plain view, the corner of a plastic sandwich bag that appeared to contain marijuana.  The trooper testified that the bag looked to be “about a one-ounce bag” of marijuana.  This discovery resulted in the Quincy officer ordering the defendant out of the van.  The officer patfrisked the defendant, finding $285 and a cellphone.  The officer asked for the defendant’s consent to search the van and the defendant declined.  The officer then told him that the trooper had seen the bag of marijuana.  The defendant was handcuffed and the Quincy officer went into the van.  He lifted a shirt that was partially covering the bag of marijuana and found two additional bags containing marijuana.  The defendant was transported to the police station, where the police looked at his cellphone and observed several text messages that looked like orders to buy marijuana.

In 2008, Massachusetts residents voted to decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  Prior to 2008, police were permitted to conduct warrantless searches of cars if there was evidence that any amount of marijuana was present.  However, following the 2008 decriminalization vote, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that in order to search a car, the police need evidence of the presence of a criminal amount (more than one ounce) of marijuana.

On at least two prior occasions, the SJC has ruled that motions to suppress searches should have been allowed when the cops had evidence that marijuana was present, but not necessarily more than one ounce of marijuana.  Nevertheless, the district court judge in this case denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the marijuana.  The SJC wasted no time in reversing the district court judge, saying that absent facts supporting a belief that there was more than one ounce of marijuana in the car, the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been allowed.  The SJC also pointed out that after the district court judge decided this case, the United States Supreme Court had ruled that police officers need a warrant to look at an arrestee’s cell phone.  Therefore, the content of the text messages also should have been suppressed.

Although possession of a small amount of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense, it is still illegal and the marijuana is subject to being seized and destroyed by the police.  The Commonwealth argued that the police therefore had the right to enter into the vehicle to seize the marijuana.  The Court rejected that argument, but said the police officers were entitled to ask the defendant to hand over the marijuana.  The Court specifically declined to say what rights the police might have if a defendant refused to give up the marijuana.

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