As more and more states are legalizing both recreational and medicinal cannabis, the authority of law enforcement over this plant is dwindling. Pennsylvania has just provided us with a prime example, where a Lehigh County court has now ruled that the smell of cannabis alone isn’t sufficient enough evidence for a vehicle search.
The matter was brought to legal attention when Timothy O. Barr’s car was searched due to the fact that they detected the odor of cannabis. The police arrested him for illegally possessing a firearm along with less than a gram of marijuana possession. While the firearm charges stand legally, Barr has a Pennsylvania-licensed medical marijuana card. Therefore, his cannabis possession was completely legal under state law.
Jude Maria L. Dantos of Lehigh County ruled that this search was illegal and, therefore, not a suitable piece of evidence for law enforcement’s actions. However, the court ruled that the state troopers involved were in the right and the case will continue.
Dantos has noted that there is discord between the understanding of the medical cannabis community and law enforcement. One of the troopers involved in Barr’s arrest even testified that she thought medical marijuana didn’t create a smell.
“The smell of marijuana is no longer per se indicative of a crime,” Dantos proclaimed in her opinion. “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’ argument won over the appellate court. However, the three-judge panel claims that Dantos was ignorant of other factors in Barr’s arrest. For example, the only reason he was pulled over in the first place was that his wife—who was driving the vehicle—didn’t come to a full, proper stop at the Eighth Street railroad overpass. Not to mention, the car was stopped in a “high crime” area known as Allentown.
The prosecutors have also argued that the state trooper’s actions are protected under the Supreme Court precedent. While the Fourth Amendment bans unreasonable search and seizures, the U.S. Supreme Court often allows for “automobile exceptions.”
While there hasn’t been a final ruling, Barr’s case and Dantos actions have sparked a discussion about how much authority law enforcement should be given when it comes to the smell of cannabis in a vehicle.