Court: Police can’t pull over drivers after smelling pot

By: Rebecca Turco, The Associated Press


BOSTON – Police can’t pull over drivers just because they detect the smell of marijuana coming from their car.

The state’s highest court issued the ruling Tuesday in the case of a New Bedford police officer who pulled over a driver in 2012 based on the odor of marijuana coming from the car and without witnessing any traffic violation.

The Supreme Judicial Court pointed to a 2008 ballot question approved by Massachusetts voters that decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.

The court argued that because of the new law, the smell of unburnt marijuana no longer constitutes probable cause to believe that a criminal amount of the drug is present.

“There’s no proof there that the operator of the motor vehicle is putting any of the public in any kind of risk,” explained Dana Sargent, New Bedford-based attorney and counselor at law.

Sargent argues that the court clearing up one so-called legal gray area may have created another. “What I think the court misses though or doesn’t address is: Is this indication the person may be operating under the influence of a drug and therefore causing a safety concern?”

Regardless, Sargent feels the ruling is a win for police accountability. “I think it’s going to lead the police to make more observations before they pull a vehicle over, which in turns of privacy is not a bad public policy,” he explained.

The court said allowing such stops encourages police to continue investigating individuals suspected of possessing marijuana in the same manner as before decriminalization.

Massachusetts State Police released the following statement in regards to the ruling:

“This ruling should not be misunderstood as a pass for marijuana users to operate while impaired. Voters decriminalized possession of less than an ounce. That does not mean that using less than an ounce means you are okay to drive. Drugged driving is a serious issue which we will continue to aggressively enforce; no referendum or legal ruling has decriminalized that offense. Furthermore, motorists should be aware that they can still face marijuana penalties if we stop them for a motor vehicle violation or other reason.” – Dave Procopio, Massachusetts State Police Spokesperson

(c) WLNE-TV, The Associated Press 2015