A New Limit to Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause (at least in Massachusetts)

With the winds of change with marijuana legislation, doubts remain as to how old laws will be affected by the increasing legality of marijuana.  Among these concerns is the confusion as to whether the smell of marijuana will remain a basis for further criminal investigation.

A new case out of the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court no longer allows police officers to justify a vehicle stop or search because of the of smell marijuana.  The decision could have a dramatic impact on the county if it’s upheld at the Supreme Court. The case places a limit on a hotly contested aspect of criminal law: reasonable suspicion and probable cause.

To understand the potential impact, it’s important to consider the standards this law could bring into question.

To stop an individual’s vehicle, a police officer must have reasonable suspicion.  Reasonable suspicion comes down to whether the officer has specific or articulable facts that which can be taken together with reasonable inferences to justify the stop.

Then police need probable cause to search a vehicle.  This means they need identifiable facts that support the presumption that a crime has been committed.   So things like erratic driving while having broken tail lights could combine to justify the stop.  Many routine traffic stops, ones that would normally end in a ticket, become more involved investigations.   The actions of the driver and the observations of the officer are now absolutely paramount because they give rise to the support for the decision to arrest and individual.  The smell of alcohol or other illegal substance would be enough to justify the search.

Individuals legally possessing marijuana will face a lower risk of invasive searches in Massachusetts.  It will be interesting to see how this decision will influence other states with medical or legal marijuana.

However, the circumstances of a vehicle stop are always suspect even without this law.  Contacting a lawyer to investigate the circumstances of your case is absolutely imperative.  Contact our experienced DUI and criminal defense lawyers in Tucson for a free consultation.