Landmark Ruling: Cannabis Odor No Grounds for Vehicle Search

Landmark Ruling: Cannabis Odor No Grounds for Vehicle Search

The Minnesota Supreme Court has recently confirmed that the scent of cannabis is not a valid reason to conduct a search of a vehicle. Even if evidence of other alleged offenses is discovered during such a search, the police in Minnesota cannot justify the search solely on the basis of the smell of marijuana. This conclusion was reached after the case was appealed twice, ultimately leading to the dismissal of the charges.

This case, which has been ongoing for two years, began when a Litchfield police officer pulled over a vehicle for a seemingly obscure local law violation: the car’s grill-mounted light bar had more auxiliary driving lights than allowed by Minnesota law. During the traffic stop, the officer requested the driver’s license and registration. At this point, the officer claimed to smell marijuana in the vehicle, which the driver, known here as Torgerson, initially denied. Subsequently, a second officer arrived, and Torgerson and his passenger both denied possessing marijuana, although Torgerson admitted to past marijuana use.

The second officer argued that the scent of marijuana provided sufficient probable cause to search the vehicle and ordered them to exit. The first officer then conducted the search and discovered a film canister, three pipes, and a small plastic bag in the center console. The plastic bag contained a white powder, and the film canister contained methamphetamine, as confirmed by a field test. As a result, Torgerson was charged with possession of a meth pipe in the presence of a minor and fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance following the search of his vehicle, which was conducted without a warrant.

However, the primary issue with the search was that the police were not originally searching for a meth pipe. Their search was initiated solely because of the odor of marijuana, and the discovery of meth and related paraphernalia was unexpected. Despite the discovery of these items, the court determined that the smell of cannabis alone was not sufficient to establish probable cause for a vehicle search, leading to the dismissal of Torgerson’s charges.

The state subsequently appealed the case, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision. A second appeal was made to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which concurred with the lower court’s ruling.

In the words of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision: “This search was justified only by the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Torgerson moved to suppress the evidence found during the search, arguing that the odor of marijuana, alone, is insufficient to create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The district court granted Torgerson’s motion, suppressed the evidence, and dismissed the complaint. The State appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s suppression order. Because we conclude that the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle, alone, is insufficient to create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, we affirm.”

This ruling reflects fundamental human rights that apply regardless of an individual’s drug use or addiction status.

Notably, similar rulings have been made in other states. In 2021, an Illinois judge ruled that the odor of cannabis is not sufficient grounds for police to search a vehicle without a warrant during a traffic stop. This decision came in response to a motion to suppress evidence in the case of Vincent Molina, a medical cannabis patient arrested for cannabis possession, despite the decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis in Illinois in 2019.

Furthermore, some states have addressed the issue of probable cause and cannabis through legislation. For instance, Maryland’s House of Delegates approved a bill that reduces penalties for public cannabis consumption and prohibits the use of the scent of cannabis as probable cause for searching a person or vehicle.

These rulings uphold the rights of citizens when interacting with law enforcement, even when hard drugs may be involved.