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A Car’s Passenger Compartment Smells of Burnt Marijuana: Can Police Search the Trunk?

A recent decision by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania addresses how far police can go in searching a vehicle when there is evidence of marijuana usage by its occupant.

Burnt Marijuana Odor

In Commonwealth v. Scott, police observed a Nissan with a malfunctioning center brake light and initiated a traffic stop. As an officer approached the car, he smelled a strong odor of marijuana and saw smoke emanating from the vehicle. He also saw the driver attempt to place a blunt in the center console. The officer and his partner ordered the driver to exit the vehicle and patted him down, but found nothing. They placed the driver in the back of their police cruiser, but did not handcuff him.

The officers then searched the Nissan’s passenger compartment without asking for the driver’s consent. In the center console, they recovered the blunt that the officer saw. In the driver’s side door, they found a jar with an orange lid that contained alleged marijuana. The officers also found a black ski mask in the backseat area.

Notably, during the search the officers only smelled burnt marijuana, as opposed to fresh marijuana that would lead them to reasonably believe that additional narcotics were concealed within the vehicle. Nevertheless, they searched the vehicle’s trunk and found a loaded .38 caliber revolver wrapped up in clothes.

The driver was charged with multiple criminal charges including carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a loaded weapon, and possession of a small amount of marijuana. While the driver conceded that the officers possessed reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop and did not challenge their recovery of the marijuana from the passenger compartment, he argued that the officers did not have probable cause to search his trunk. Accordingly, he sought to suppress the firearm evidence.

The trial court ruled to suppress the firearm evidence, finding that police “failed to articulate any facts that could have given them probable cause to use the key to open the trunk, search the trunk, and then the clothing which contained the firearm at issue in this case.”

The Commonwealth appealed. In doing so, it emphasized the trial court’s finding that police had probable cause to search the vehicle based upon the smell of burnt marijuana inside it. Based upon the existence of probable cause, as well as the officers’ recovery of the blunt and additional jar of marijuana from the passenger compartment, the Commonwealth argued that the officers were entitled to search anywhere in the car, including the trunk, for additional drugs.

On Appeal

In ruling in favor of the driver, the Superior Court reasoned that the odor of burnt marijuana and small amount of contraband recovered from the vehicle did not create a fair probability that the officers could recover additional contraband in the trunk:

The officer did not provide additional, specific facts to demonstrate that his search of the trunk was based on anything more than mere suspicion.

The court further noted that the arresting officer did not testify before the trial court as to any facts that could have supported a belief that additional contraband was located in the trunk based upon the driver’s demeanor:

The officer did not testify that [the driver] fidgeted or displayed nervous behavior. Rather, the officer’s only testimony about [the driver’s] demeanor was that he looked “like a deer in headlights” and “appeared like he didn’t know what to do.” … In the context of a traffic stop, such a demeanor is not unusual.

Conclusion

The suppression of the firearm evidence, in the Commonwealth’s own words, suppresses or terminates its prosecution of this matter. The ruling is good news for the driver. It is even better news for motorists who don’t wish to be subjected to unconstitutional searches by law enforcement.