An Important New Ruling from Maryland’s Highest Court Says that the Odor of Marijuana Alone Doesn’t Give the Police Cause for a Warrantless Search

Many times, changes in the law are reflections of changes in society. That can be true both in case law and in statutory law. The landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said that all same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry is an example of the former. The significant changes many states, including Maryland, have made to their statutes regarding the decriminalization of marijuana are examples of the latter.

Today, possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is not a crime in Maryland. Some of the benefits of that are very obvious. There are, however, other collateral benefits of this change in the law that are less obvious, but no less important. This change in the legal status of marijuana may impact your criminal case, whether or not drug charges were involved, as one very important Court of Appeals ruling recently illustrated. There are many things you can take away from this new case, but one of the main ones is: if you were arrested and drug-related evidence obtained based on a warrantless search, be sure to contact an experienced Maryland drug crime attorney about your rights and your options within the legal system.

In Maryland, the federal and state constitutions contain protections that safeguard you against warrantless searches and seizures. In order for the police to conduct a search without a warrant, they generally need probable cause for the search. That means they need a reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search was involved in a crime.

In recent years, that was often where marijuana came in. Even if the police were on otherwise flimsy constitutional ground, they could often justify their warrantless search by saying, “I detected the distinct odor of marijuana and it was clearly coming from the defendant. That was my probable cause for making the warrantless search.” The courts widely accepted that as valid cause for a warrantless search.

For a few years, the courts in Maryland continued to recognize a police officer’s detection of marijuana by smell as a valid basis for probable cause, even after the state decriminalized marijuana possession in amounts below 10g.

That has ended with this month’s Court of Appeals ruling. In the case, M.P. was stopped by the police. The police spotted one marijuana cigarette in M.P.’s possession and noted that they smelled of marijuana. (A single joint is typically less than one-half gram, well below the 10g cutoff for legal possession.) Based on that evidence and that evidence alone, the police searched M.P. They later found cocaine on him and charged him with illegal cocaine possession.

A single joint and the smell of weed, by themselves, aren’t enough

In a written opinion that began with a quote from the lyrics of the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, the court declared that, simply because the police smelled marijuana on M.P. and saw a quantity of marijuana that was obviously a legal amount, those things were insufficient to give them reasonable suspicion that the defendant was involved in a crime. In other words, when the police catch you with a joint or two and smelling of weed, the police don’t have probable cause for a warrantless search (unless they have something more.) If they search you anyway without getting a warrant first, then the search is illegal.

The police in M.P.’s case had “nothing [that] suggests that possession of a joint and the odor of burnt marijuana gave the police probable cause to believe he was in possession of a criminal amount of that substance,” which meant the cocaine evidence was inadmissible at trial.

We are all entitled to certain rights and freedoms in Maryland, including the right to be free from illegal searches and seizures. What makes a search legal versus illegal has the potential to change over time, as this drug case indicates. For the best defense possible, you need to be sure you have up-to-the-moment legal knowledge on your side. Diligent Maryland drug crime defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi offers this and more to clients who are facing criminal charges. To learn more about how to put this office’s knowledge, skills and experience to work for you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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