Marijuana Smell and Vehicle Searches: Understanding the Law's Probable Cause Requirement

Investigative Article: The Truth About Vehicle Searches When Marijuana is Detected by Police

Being pulled over by the police can be a nerve-wracking experience for anyone, but it can be especially worrisome for those who have marijuana on their person or in their vehicle. One of the most common questions people ask when stopped by the police is whether they can search their car if they smell marijuana. The short answer is that it depends on a variety of factors and circumstances.

The Legal Status of Marijuana in Arizona

Before delving into the legality of vehicle searches when marijuana is detected, it is important to understand the laws surrounding marijuana possession and use in Arizona. In November 2020, Arizona voters passed Proposition 207, legalizing the possession and use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21. Under the new law, people can possess up to one ounce of marijuana and can grow up to six plants at home. However, there are still limitations on where and how marijuana can be used, and possession of marijuana by those under the age of 21 is still illegal.

What Do Police Officers Look For?

When a police officer smells marijuana during a traffic stop, it could potentially give them probable cause to search the vehicle. However, officers cannot search a vehicle based solely on the odor of marijuana. According to Arizona law, probable cause must be based on additional evidence or circumstances beyond the mere smell of marijuana. For example, if an officer smells marijuana and sees a pipe or other drug paraphernalia in plain sight, this could be enough to establish probable cause.

Officers will also look for other signs of illegal activity, such as the presence of other drugs or drug paraphernalia, large amounts of cash, or indications of drug trafficking. They may also look for signs of impaired driving, such as bloodshot eyes or slurred speech, as well as open containers of alcohol or other indications of driving under the influence.

The Limits of Probable Cause

It is important to note that even if an officer establishes probable cause to search a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana and other evidence or circumstances, there are still limits to what they can search. For example, if an officer pulls someone over for a broken taillight and smells marijuana, they cannot search the trunk of the car unless they have additional probable cause, such as seeing a weapon or other illegal item in the passenger compartment. In essence, the search must be related to the original reason for the traffic stop and the probable cause established.

Your Rights During a Traffic Stop

If you are pulled over by the police and they suspect you have marijuana in your vehicle, it is important to know your rights. You have the right to refuse a search, but it is important to do so in a respectful manner. You can simply say, "I do not consent to a search," and leave it at that. If the police have probable cause to search your vehicle, they can do so even if you do not consent, but it is still important to assert your rights.

It is also your right to remain silent during a traffic stop. You do not have to answer any questions beyond providing your name, license, and registration. If the police ask if you have marijuana in the car, you can simply say, "I prefer not to answer any questions without an attorney present."

The Consequences of Vehicle Searches

If the police do find marijuana or other illegal items during a vehicle search, there can be serious consequences. Depending on the amount of marijuana and other factors, you could be charged with a misdemeanor or felony. If convicted, you could face fines, community service, probation, or even jail time. Additionally, having a drug conviction on your record can have long-term consequences, such as difficulty finding employment or housing.

Knowing Your Rights Can Protect You

Being informed about your rights during a traffic stop can help protect you from potential legal consequences. If you are ever in a situation where you are stopped by the police and suspect they may search your vehicle for marijuana or other illegal items, remember to stay calm and respectful while asserting your rights. If you are charged with a crime, it is important to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help protect your rights and advocate for your interests in court.

For more information about vehicle searches when marijuana is detected by police, visit Arizona Attorney Arja Shah.