A Pennsylvania appeals court has just ruled that the smell of cannabis can no longer be used as the sole justification for a vehicle search, a decision that mirrors similar rulings in other US states.
On November 7, 2018, Pennsylvania state troopers pulled over Timothy Barr and his wife for failing to make a proper stop at a railroad overpass. The cops claimed that they smelled a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle, but Barr presented his medical marijuana card, proving that he was legally allowed to use cannabis in the state. Regardless, the cops chose to search his vehicle, and discovered two bags of weed and a loaded handgun.
Barr was legally barred from owning a gun due to a former conviction, so state prosecutors charged him with cannabis possession and two firearms offenses. At his trial, Judge Maria L. Dantos threw out the weed charges, ruling that “the smell of marijuana is no longer per se indicative of a crime,” The Morning Call reports. “With a valid license, an individual is permitted, and expected, to leave an odor of marijuana emanating from his or her person, clothes, hair, breath, and therefore, his or her vehicle.”
Dantos also decided to suppress the evidence in the firearms case, but the prosecutors appealed the ruling. Last week, the state Superior Court reviewed the case and agreed to overturn Dantos' decision, ruling that the judge did not thoroughly consider all of the evidence. The case will be returned to the lower court, but it will be heard by a new judge, as Dantos has since retired.
But although the Superior Court decided to overturn the lower court's ruling, they still agreed that the smell of weed alone does not give cops the right to search vehicles. “After careful review, we agree with the trial court that the odor of marijuana does not per se establish probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle,” Superior Court Judge John Bender wrote, according to The Morning Call.
“However, because the trial court failed to afford that factor any weight, and did not appear to evaluate any other factors in conjunction with the odor of marijuana in its probable cause analysis, we vacate the portion of the order granting suppression and remand for reconsideration by the trial court,” Judge Bender added.
The ruling establishes precedent against allowing cops to continue using weed odors as an excuse to search vehicles, but the ruling is not the final word on the issue. Either party in the case could appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, who would be able to make a final ruling on the matter.
“In short, this ruling will have a wide impact on cases throughout the commonwealth,” said Barr's attorney, Joshua Karoly, to The Morning Call. “Stay tuned for the next chapter. The final word on this issue has not been written.”
Now that medical cannabis and hemp are legal in most US states, judges, prosecutors, and lawmakers are realizing that the smell of weed does not necessarily indicate a crime. Earlier this year, a study found that common cannabis packaging can completely cover up the smell of weed, suggesting that cops often lie about smelling pot on a suspect. Last year, a Massachusetts judge ruled that pot odor cannot justify searches, the Miami-Dade Police Department announced a similar policy for its officers, and Virginia just passed a law banning cops from using weed smell as sole justification for vehicle searches.