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Massachusetts Supreme Court: Cops Can’t Search Vehicles Based on Smell of Cannabis

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled, in a unanimous decision, that law enforcement can’t use the smell of unburnt cannabis as probable cause to search a person’s vehicle, regardless of how strong the smell.

“[W]e are not confident, at least on this record, that a human nose can discern reliably the presence of a criminal amount of marijuana, as distinct from an amount subject only to a civil fine,” says Justice Barbara A. Lenk. The ruling expands the court’s 2011 Commonwealth v. Cruz decision, which ruled that the smell of burnt cannabis doesn’t give cops probable cause to search a car.

In a separate, yet still unanimous decision, the court ruled that police can’t use the smell of cannabis as probable cause to search a person’s car, even if police believe there is evidence of a federal crime.

“Where the 2008 initiative decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana under State law, and accordingly removed police authority to arrest individuals for civil violations.. it also must be read as curtailing police authority to enforce the Federal prohibition of possession of small amounts of marijuana,” says Lenk.

The ruling takes effect immediately.