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Car searches based on smell alone don’t pass the sniff test

On Behalf of | Oct 5, 2023 | Drug Charges

At the beginning of August 2023, Governor Tim Waltz signed a bill that made marijuana use legal for adults in Minnesota – similar to alcohol and tobacco.

That’s a big change, but it’s not the only big change in the law. According to a new ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court, police can no longer use the odor of marijuana as “probable cause” for the warrantless search of a motor vehicle.

The distinctive odor of cannabis has long been a pretext

Broadly speaking, when the police pull you over for a traffic violation or some other reason, they cannot invade your privacy and search your car simply because they want to see what they can find. They either need your consent, a warrant signed by a judge or some kind of probable cause to justify their action.

The “odor of marijuana” has long been a favorite pretext, however, when the police want to justify the search of a vehicle. While cannabis does have a distinctive smell, it’s always been far too easy for an officer to claim that they smelled marijuana’s odor wafting from a vehicle to initiate a search – whether they actually smelled it or not.

Now, per the ruling in State v. Torgerson, smell alone can no longer be considered sufficient probable cause. However, the court stopped short of saying that the odor of marijuana can never be used as a factor when deciding if there is or was probable cause for a search simply because its use or possession may now be legal. Instead, it can be combined with other observable signs of impairment or drug use, like bloodshot eyes and altered behavior.

This ruling could cause complications for the police as they navigate the new changes in the law, and that could lead to some serious mistakes. If you’ve been charged with a drug crime and you believe that police violated your rights, that could be a potential defense. Seeking legal guidance can provide you with clarity about your rights and options accordingly.