Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

What can Law Enforcement do if They Smell Marijuana?

A New York resident was recently arrested in Boston’s South Station after law enforcement found approximately 10 pounds of marijuana stuffed inside the man’s travel bag. Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority officers were alerted after a bus terminal worker reported a strong marijuana odor emanating from a piece of baggage. 

After performing an investigation, law enforcement found approximately 10 pounds of marijuana as well as a scale inside of the bag. The alleged owner of the marijuana was later arrested and charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute. 

While the man in this case ended up facing criminal charges based only on the odor of marijuana, there are other situations in which law enforcement cannot use the mere scent of marijuana alone to pursue an arrest. This article reviews some important Massachusetts laws that you should know regarding marijuana smells and criminal offenses.

Vehicle Stops Based on the Smell of Marijuana

For years, courts held that the smell of marijuana gave law enforcement probable cause to perform a vehicle stop. In the 2015 case of Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that law enforcement officers cannot stop a vehicle when they only have reasonable suspicion that a civil infraction for a small amount of marijuana has occurred. 

This means that if law enforcement only smells the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from your vehicle, they still need probable cause demonstrating that you are committing a criminal offense. Because marijuana possession of a small amount is not a criminal offense, law enforcement cannot use the smell of marijuana to form probable cause that a person has committed any other type of crime. The reasoning behind the court’s decision was that the odor of marijuana can be carried on a person’s clothing or might be from someone else. 

Vehicle Searches Due to the Smell of Marijuana

In the same way that law enforcement in Massachusetts cannot stop your vehicle based on only the smell of marijuana, they also cannot search your vehicle as the result of the smell of marijuana. In the 2014 case of Commonwealth v. Overmeyer, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that law enforcement can only search a vehicle if the police have probable cause that your vehicle contains evidence of a criminal offense. 

The odor of burnt marijuana does not establish probable cause that a criminal offense has been committed because an odor does not inform law enforcement about the amount of marijuana that is in a vehicle. 

What This Means for Massachusetts Drivers

It is common for law enforcement to claim that they smell marijuana. Combined with other factors, Massachusetts police often use these factors to justify an arrest. There have even been cases of law enforcement lying about the smell of marijuana so they can continue a search. This means that if law enforcement claims to smell marijuana coming from you or your vehicle, you are at greater risk of ending up in a difficult situation. 

Law enforcement, however, cannot use the smell of marijuana whether burnt or unburnt as the only factor to stop your vehicle or perform a vehicle search. Some factors that can lead to searches or stops if paired with the smell of marijuana include erratic driving, failure to use a turn signal, following too close, and speeding. 

Speak with an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

Being convicted of a marijuana-related offense can result in a person facing large fines, jail time, and many other complications. As a result, if you find yourself in such a situation, you should not hesitate to speak with a skilled criminal defense lawyer. Contact attorney Edward R. Molari today to schedule a free case evaluation.