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Can Police Search Your Car Without a Warrant if They Smell Marijuana?

The right to be free from unreasonable governmental searches is protected by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.  As a general rule, any search performed without a search warrant is presumed to be unreasonable – but there are many exceptions to this rule.  For example, if you are pulled over while driving for a minor traffic infraction, the police officer who stops you cannot search your car simply on this basis.  However, if that police officer smells marijuana, he or she is permitted to search your person and your vehicle for evidence of illegal drug use.

Marijuana odor justifies a vehicle search

Courts in Florida have explicitly allowed police to search the driver, the interior of the car, and the trunk when they notice the smell of marijuana during a traffic stop.  One of the leading cases on this topic is State v. Betz, 815 So.2d. 627 (Fl. Sup. Ct. 2002).  Police stopped defendant Betz’s car after noticing that one of his headlights was out.  When he was stopped, Betz got out of the car quickly, closing the door but leaving the window open.  While asking Betz for his license, the officer noticed a strong marijuana smell coming from the car, and saw grey smoke within.  He also smelled marijuana on Betz’s clothes.  The officer patted Betz down and discovered a plastic bag containing what appeared to be marijuana.  Thereafter, he searched the car and the trunk.  In the trunk, inside a metal box in a briefcase, the officer located additional marijuana.

Betz contested the legality of the search of his person and his trunk.  He argued that the drugs found should not be admitted into evidence because police lacked probable cause to search his trunk.  The court disagreed, holding instead that since the marijuana odor supplied probable cause for a warrantless search, the officer could properly search any part of the car, trunk included, that could hold contraband.  Florida’s law is consistent with many other states, which permit police to search an entire vehicle when the smell of marijuana gives them probable cause to believe that the car contains drugs.

Warrantless searches based on smell are common

According to the Sun Sentinel, warrantless searches justified by marijuana odor are common in Florida.  The Sun Sentinel cites Boca Raton as an example, where according to arrest reports police regularly collar suspected thieves and burglars by stopping their cars for  traffic violations and then relying on the supposed smell of marijuana to support a vehicle search.  These searches often turn up stolen items and burglary tools, which can then be used as evidence.  Some question whether all this wafting marijuana smell is real, or simply a convenient tool for police to invoke.  Indeed, in some cases the officers’ claims of drug odors have been called into doubt.  Defense lawyers argue that because the legality of such searches depends entirely on the police officer’s word, misconduct may be prevalent.

Consult an Orlando Drug Crimes Lawyer

If you have been arrested and charged with a drug crime, the experienced drug crimes lawyers of The Baez Law Group can help.  We have experience defending clients in Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and throughout Florida.  We have the knowledge and ability to mount the best defense possible, including challenging the evidence against you.  Contact us about your case today.

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