Pot odor does not justify probable cause for vehicle searches
The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed that cannabis odor does not constitute probable cause to search a vehicle.
If Minnesota police search a vehicle solely based upon the smell of pot, they can’t justify searching a vehicle, even if there is evidence found of other alleged crimes. Even after appealing a lower court decision to suppress the evidence—twice—the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed, and the dismissal of his charges stands.
In a ruling filed regarding a case the State of Minnesota Court of Appeals on Sept. 13, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed that cannabis odor does not constitute probable cause to search a vehicle under the state’s automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
The case has been ongoing for two years. On July 5, 2021, just before 10 p.m., a Litchfield police officer stopped a car for an obscure local law: the light bar mounted on the vehicle’s grill had more auxiliary driving lights than are permitted under Minnesota law. The officer asked the driver, Adam Lloyd Torgerson, for his license and registration. Torgerson, his wife, and his child were present in the vehicle. The officer stated that he smelled pot and asked Torgerson if there was any reason for the odor, which he initially denied. But cops found a lot more than just pot.
A backup officer was called in. The couple denied possessing any pot, but Torgerson admitted to smoking weed in the past. The second officer stated that the weed odor gave them probable cause to search the vehicle and ordered them to exit the vehicle. The first officer searched the vehicle and found a film canister, three pipes, and a small plastic bag in the center console. The plastic bag contained a white powder and the film canister contained meth, which was confirmed in a field test.
Torgenson was charged with possession of meth pipe in the presence of a minor and fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance after the unwarranted search of Torgerson’s vehicle.
Police Aren’t Allowed to Do That, Multiple Courts Rule
But the search had one major problem—cops weren’t searching for a meth pipe. They only searched his car because they could smell pot, and the meth and paraphernalia were a surprise for everyone. Still, they had no grounds to search the vehicle. The man’s charges were later dismissed after the district court determined the odor of cannabis alone was insufficient basis for probable cause to search the vehicle, regardless of whatever other drug paraphernalia they found.
The state appealed the case, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision. The case was appealed a second time, this time to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which agreed with the lower court’s ruling.
“This search was justified only by the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle,” the Minnesota Supreme Court decision reads. “Torgerson moved to suppress the evidence found during the search, arguing that the odor of marijuana, alone, is insufficient to create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The district court granted Torgerson’s motion, suppressed the evidence, and dismissed the complaint. The State appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s suppression order. Because we conclude that the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle, alone, is insufficient to create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, we affirm.”
It amounts to basic human rights that apply—regardless of whether or not a person is addicted to drugs.
Other States do Precisely the Same Regarding Pot Odor as Probably Cause
An Illinois judge ruled in 2021 that the odor of cannabis is not sufficient grounds for police to search a vehicle without a warrant during a traffic stop.
Daniel J. Dalton, Associate Judge of the 14th Judicial Circuit, issued a ruling in response to a motion to suppress evidence in the case of Vincent Molina, a medical cannabis patient arrested for cannabis possession last year.
In that case, Molina was arrested despite the decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis in Illinois in 2019 with the passage of the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.
In some states, the issue of probable cause and cannabis was defined through bills.
Last April, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill that reduces the penalties for public cannabis consumption and bars police from using the odor of cannabis as the basis for the search of an individual or auto. Under Maryland’s House Bill 1071, law enforcement officers would be prohibited from using the odor of raw or burnt cannabis as probable cause to search a person or vehicle.
The rulings represent the rights of citizens when they are pulled over by police, even if there are hard drugs involved.