A Pennsylvania judge has ruled that a search of a medical marijuana patient’s car based on the scent of cannabis is illegal. In an opinion filed earlier this month, Lehigh County Judge Maria Dantos excluded evidence in a drugs and weapons case, dealing a blow to prosecutors.
The ruling stems from the case of Timothy Barr, 27, a registered medical marijuana patient with the state of Pennsylvania. In November, Barr, a resident of Germansville, Pennsylvania, was a passenger in a car driven by his wife when they were pulled over by state troopers for a traffic violation. When the law enforcement officers said that they smelled marijuana in the vehicle, Barr showed them his medical marijuana identification card issued by the state.
However, the troopers said that they still had a legal right to search the car and found a small amount of cannabis and cannabis residue. They also found a loaded handgun under the driver’s seat. Due to a previous criminal conviction, Barr is prohibited from possessing a firearm.
In the opinion in the case filed by Dantos, the judge wrote that it was “illogical, impractical and unreasonable” for the troopers to suspect that a crime had been committed after Barr showed them his medical marijuana identification card.
“The smell of marijuana is no longer per se indicative of a crime,” Dantos wrote.
Cops Don’t Know the Law
The case also reveals how woefully uninformed some law enforcement officers are about the laws they are charged with enforcing. One trooper in the case testified that she believed medical marijuana had no smell while the other said that she thought dried cannabis was still illegal under the state’s medical marijuana regulations. Cannabis flower has been available for legal purchase at licensed medical marijuana dispensaries since August, 2018.
The troopers had found less than a gram of cannabis in an unmarked bag that was in a pill bottle and charged Barr with possession, despite his status as a medical marijuana patient.
“Pennsylvania legislators did not contemplate that people with legal medical marijuana cards would be arrested and prosecuted for possession of marijuana in a package that is not clearly marked with a dispensary name on it. Such actions are merely means of hampering the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes,” Dantos wrote in her opinion.
Dantos also wrote that the case illustrated a “clear disconnect between the medical community and the law enforcement community.” The judge dismissed the marijuana possession charge and ruled that the handgun discovered in the car was inadmissible as evidence in the weapons case.
District Attorney Jim Martin said that his office is reviewing the judge’s ruling and transcripts from court hearings in the case. Prosecutors have not yet decided if they will appeal Dantos’ ruling to the Superior Court, proceed without the excluded evidence, or drop the case.
Criminal defense attorney Joshua Karoly said that the ruling could lead to an end of a procedural rule that allows law enforcement officers to conduct searches of vehicles based solely on the odor of cannabis.
“This case will put a spotlight on the plain smell doctrine in Pennsylvania which police use far too often to invade citizens’ privacy,” Karoly said.