The Massachusetts State Supreme Judicial court ruled that the simple smell of marijuana coming from a parked car was not enough evidence to order those within the vehicle to exit. With that ruling, the court has cemented the wishes of voters who decided in 2008 to decriminalize less than one ounce of marijuana. But, it hasn’t made everyone happy.
The case, Commonweath vs. Cruz, centered on two men, who were sitting in a parked vehicle when officers approached and smelled marijuana. They ordered the men to exit the vehicle and asked if they had anything on them. One man was in possession of crack cocaine and was charged. But, the court’s ruling states the police had no grounds to order the exit and subsequent search in the first place.
There are very strict circumstances in which the police can make you exit your vehicle. According to the court, these circumstances include when the officers are in danger, when they have reasonable suspicion that the occupant is engaged in illegal activity, or if they have cause to search the vehicle. None of these circumstances were present.
The mere scent of pot wasn’t enough because there was no way for the officers to determine that the occupants of the vehicle were in fact in possession of marijuana and if so, that they were in possession of more than 1 ounce in order to make it a criminal offense.
The court ruled, “There are no facts in the record to support a reasonable suspicion that the defendant possessed more than 1 ounce of marijuana; we conclude that, to order a passenger in a stopped vehicle to exit based merely on suspicion of an offense, that offense must be criminal.”
Police and prosecutors alike are not happy with the ruling, stating there are many illegal activities that could be related to smoking marijuana and the scent of pot should be enough to order the exiting of a vehicle. They also caution this ruling only currently applies to a very narrow set of circumstances, specifically only when the vehicle is parked.
This ruling doesn’t apply to vehicles that were in motion or situations where there are other indications of criminal activity in addition to marijuana scent. However, the ruling does cement voters’ wishes and respects the decriminalization of small amounts of personal marijuana.
In our office, we’ve had similar cases, including clients charged with OUI-Drugs based on the smell coming from the vehicle, so these cases do come up.