POLICE NOT ALLOWED TO SEARCH DUE TO SUSPICION OF MARIJUANA

In Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress Percocet pills discovered by the police in a vehicle, where the stop of the vehicle was based on the officer’s belief that he detected the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from it as he was driving behind it. Upon approaching the driver after the stop, the officer observed that he “held in his right hand what the officer recognized as a marijuana cigar. The officer asked the driver whether the cigar was what was causing the odor, and the driver responded that it was. The officer then confiscated the cigar and asked for the driver’s license and registration. The stop continued, and in the course of it, police discovered a plastic bag in the vehicle containing sixty Percocet pills. The defendant, a passenger in the vehicle …, was charged with possession with intent to distribute a class B substance” and related offenses.

In its decision, the SJC noted that this case “required it to evaluate further the impact of G.L. c.94C, §§32L-32N 2008, which decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.” The Court stated “that in a case such as the present one, where the only factor leading an officer to conclude that an individual possesses marijuana is the smell of burnt marijuana, this factor supports a reasonable suspicion that that individual is committing the civil offense of possession of a small quantity of marijuana, but not probable cause to believe that he or she is committing the offense.  In the Court’s view, under art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, “reasonable suspicion to believe that a civil marijuana infraction was occurring” was not a permissible basis for the officer’s stop of the vehicle. In so ruling, the Court rejected the Commonwealth’s contention that “the stop … here was analogous to routine stops of automobiles for civil traffic violations,” which are permissible based on reasonable suspicion. The Court explained that “permitting stops based on reasonable suspicion … that traffic laws may have been violated gives police the ability to immediately address potential safety hazards on the road…. No similar governmental interest supports allowing police to stop a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion that someone in the vehicle possesses an ounce or less of marijuana in violation of … c.94C, §32L.”

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