Marijuana Smell Won't Get You In Trouble On Massachusetts Roads

Court ruling prohibits police from using smell of marijuana as reason for car search

In recent months, a number of states across America have made it easier for law-enforcement officers to meet the standards necessary to search a motorist's car without a warrant during a traffic stop.

Massachusetts is headed in the opposite direction.

The state's Supreme Judicial Court said police cannot use the odor of marijuana to justify the search of a vehicle in a ruling issued earlier this week, even if the smell is "very strong."

"Odor, standing alone, does not provide probable cause to search an automobile," Justice Barbara A. Lenk wrote in a unanimous decision.

Two earlier decisions paved the way for Wednesday's ruling. The first came in 2008 following a state ballot initiative that decriminalized the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. In 2011, the court ruled the burnt smell of marijuana could not be used to justify a search. Wednesday's ruling extends the protection to unsmoked marijuana.

It stems from a car accident involving a Volvo-driving motorist named Matthew Overmyer, who rear-ended a minivan. Responding officers detecting the odor of marijuana, and Overmyer directed Officer Sean Klink to the glove box, where they found, "a 'fat bag of marijuana' which was 'rather large,'" according to court records.

That triggered a more extensive search of the vehicle, in which officers found a backpack on the rear seat that contained two large freezer bags of pot, which in turn, contained smaller individually wrapped packages. Two days later, Overmyer was charged with possession with intent to distribute.

A lower-court judge found that once Overmyer surrendered the "fat bag" of marijuana from the glove compartment, there was nothing more to suggest, according to the ruling, the smell of marijuana may have come from anything but the "fat bag." The ruling also notes that given the one-ounce threshold, smell is a poor gauge of weight.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure, although under what's commonly called the "Automobile Exception," motorists typically have more limited rights in their cars than they would in, say, their home or office.

Prosecutors had argued the smell in the car had made a search of the back seat acceptable under the exception to the warrant requirement.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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