A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling will likely change the steps law enforcement officers take in conducting warrantless searches when they pull over a vehicle and smell marijuana. While it can be considered as a factor, the odor itself cannot be the only reason to move forward with a search.

The traffic stop

The high court ruling came from a traffic stop three years ago in Allentown when the driver of a vehicle did not stop at a solid white line while approaching an overpass. As highway patrol troopers approached the car, they smelled what they thought to be marijuana coming from inside the vehicle.

The resulting search uncovered one gram of marijuana in a plastic bag near the front center console and a loaded handgun behind the driver’s seat.

Timothy Oliver Barr II, the defendant in the case, and his wife, who was driving the vehicle, showed  the officers their medical marijuana cards. However, the recently discovered bag did not have any markings that showed it was from a dispensary.

Barr was subsequently arrested.

The prosecution’s case

Arguments by the Lehigh County district attorney’s office focused on the illegality of the drug for most state residents, despite medical marijuana cardholders possessing the narcotic without criminal consequences. They cited that factor as a reason that the smell of marijuana alone should still be an incriminating factor.

A majority of state high court justices rejected those arguments and supported the trial judge’s determination, reinstating the order that suppressed the evidence. Chief Justice Max Baer wrote for the majority:

“The odor of marijuana alone does not amount to probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle but, rather, may be considered as a factor in examining the totality of the circumstances.”

Writing in a second opinion, one justice noted that the package was not from a licensed state dispensary as it lacked identifying information, including a barcode.