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Is the Smell of Cannabis Enough for a Police Search?

According to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, citizens have the right to be free from unreasonable governmental searches. As a general rule, any search conducted without a search warrant is presumed to be unreasonable.

However, there are many exceptions to this rule. For instance, if a police officer smells marijuana, he or she is permitted to search your person and your vehicle for evidence of illegal drug use.

Cannabis Smell Justifies a Vehicle Search

Warrantless searches justified by marijuana odor are common in Florida. In fact, state criminal courts have explicitly permitted the lawful search of the motorist, the interior of the vehicle, and the trunk when police encounter the smell of cannabis during a traffic stop.

The smell-search law dates back to the Carroll Doctrine, a 1925 U.S. Supreme Court decision which upheld warrantless vehicle searches after federal authorities thwarted a liquor smuggler. In Florida, subsequent challenges in the state courts have upheld the practice.

In a report by the Sun-Sentinel, South Florida law enforcement claim they routinely intercept suspected burglars and thieves by stopping their vehicles on traffic violations, then invoking stench of cannabis to initiate a search. In many of the Boca Raton cases, the search resulted in the recovery of stolen items such as stolen credit and debit cards, as well as glass-breaking window punches.

State of Florida v. Kellen Lee Betz (2002)

One of the most well-known cases on this subject is State v. Betz, So.2d. 627 (Fl. Sup. Ct. 2002). Due to one of vehicle’s headlights being out, law enforcement stopped defendant Betz’s car. As soon as he was stopped, the defendant exited the vehicle immediately, shutting the door but leaving the driver’s side window down.

While asking Betz for his driver’s license, the officer noticed a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the car and the defendant’s clothes, as well as grey smoke inside the vehicle. Thereafter, law enforcement searched Betz’s person and found a plastic bag containing marijuana. Then they searched the vehicle and inside the trunk, and discovered a metal box in a briefcase that contained additional cannabis.

The defendant contested the legality of the search of his person and his vehicle, arguing that the cannabis found should not be admitted into evidence due to a lack of probable cause to search his trunk. The court disagreed, however, stating that since the cannabis smell granted probable cause for a warrantless search, the officer could conduct a lawful search on any part of the vehicle, including the trunk, which could contain contraband.

Let Our Ocala Criminal Defense Attorneys Protect Your Rights

Unlike other states throughout the country, recreational use of marijuana is still considered illegal in Florida. Possession of 20 grams or less is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum jail sentence of one year and a fine of up to $1,000.

If you have been arrested and charged with a drug crime, our experienced legal team at Dunham & Ingram LLC is prepared to fight for you. We can thoroughly evaluate your case and determine all of your available legal options in order to obtain the most favorable outcome possible.

For more information, contact us and schedule a consultation today.