Probable Cause, Vehicle Stops, & Drug Odor (Smell)
Our law firm represents person charged with drug crimes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Most of these cases come to us following vehicle or car stops on a street, road or highway. Remember that police need probable cause to search your car but they don’t need a search warrant; warrantless searches are allowed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A major issue, however, is what suffices as probable cause (reasonable belief that a crime is, has occurred). There is no exact answer and courts will evaluate this issue based on a totality of the circumstances analysis. Probable cause is based on a number of factors and some can weigh heavily than others. A major factor in many drug cases can be the odor of drugs, especially marijuana.
New Jersey – Probable Cause Searches & Smells/Odor
In a recent case for our criminal defense law firm, a police officer stopped a defendant for having dark window tints on his vehicle. The officer approached the defendant’s vehicle to obtain the defendant’s identification and inquire about his driving record, and stuck his head into the open passenger window to better hear the defendant. While speaking to the defendant, the officer smelled the odor of marijuana coming from inside the vehicle. Based on this observation, the officer searched the car and found a small amount of marijuana under the passenger seat.
Although main issue was whether the officer violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right when he stuck his head into the window (which the court ultimately found minimally intrusive and not unreasonable), the court discussed probable cause to search a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana. Similar to the “plain smell doctrine” recognized by the federal courts, New Jersey recognizes that “the smell of marijuana itself constitutes probable cause ‘that a criminal offense ha[s] been committed and that additional contraband might be present.’”
The Court in this case found that “smell of marijuana emanating from a car establishes probable cause to believe that it contains contraband or drugs. In New Jersey, officers may conduct warrantless, nonconsensual searches in situations where:
(1) the police have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of a criminal offense; and
(2) the circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.
While the odor of marijuana has been repeatedly recognized by New Jersey decisions as providing probable cause to search vehicles, a police officer must not only have probable cause to believe that the vehicle is carrying contraband but the search must be reasonable in scope.
This means that the scope of the search must be strictly tied to and justified by the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible. In another case that our law firm handled in South Jersey, the Superior Court found that the police officers had probable cause to search the interior of defendant’s car (based on a Black & Mild cigar, a vape-pen, and claiming to have smelled marijuana). The court, however, said that the scope of the search did not extend to the trunk of the defendant’s car, where 30 pounds of vacuumed-sealed marijuana was discovered. Since nothing in the interior of the passenger area or in the defendant’s conduct gave any suspicion of drugs in the trunk, extending the search to the trunk was illegal and unconstitutional.
Pennsylvania: Probable Cause Searches & Smells/Odor
In Pennsylvania, both probable cause and exigent circumstances are required to justify the warrantless search of a vehicle. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Gary ruled that “with respect to a warrantless search of a motor vehicle that is supported by probable cause, Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution affords no greater protection than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Through this decision, Pennsylvania adopted the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, which allows police officers to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to do so and does not require any exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle.
The scope of a police officer’s warrantless search is limited to “the totality of the circumstances demonstrating a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” Similar to New Jersey, Pennsylvania courts have found that police officers who establish probable cause to search the cabin a vehicle, do not necessarily establish probable cause to search the trunk of the car.
Medical Marijuana Cards, Smells and Drug Searches
There is a recent case which potentially challenges the “plain smell” doctrine in Pennsylvania. In Commonwealth v. Barr II, a police officer conducted a warrantless search of the defendant’s car based on the odor of marijuana they detected from within the car, despite the defendant providing a valid PA medical marijuana license. The Judge dismissed the marijuana charge and suppressed a gun charge, stating “this is not a simple issue of ‘plain smell’ since the legalization of marijuana” and that “the smell of marijuana is no longer per se indicative of a crime.”
If you’ re charged with a drug crime in Pennsylvania or New Jersey contact our criminal defense law firm for help!
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