The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this week that the scent of cannabis alone constitutes probable cause to justify a search by police, despite the legalization of other products such as hemp that have similar odors. The court’s conservative majority ruled in a 4-3 decision that police officers in Marshfield, Wisconsin, had enough probable cause to search a defendant after detecting the smell of cannabis in the car he was driving and declined to exclude evidence discovered during the warrantless search. The ruling overturns two lower court rulings that found the evidence gained in the search was inadmissible because officers could not be certain if they smelled marijuana, which is still illegal under Wisconsin state law, and hemp, an agricultural crop that was legalized by the federal government with the 2018 Farm Bill.

The court handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of Quaheem Moore, a man who was pulled over for speeding in Marshfield by two police officers in 2019. In their report, the officers state that while talking to Moore, they detected a strong odor of burnt cannabis emanating from the vehicle. When questioned about the odor, Moore told the officers that he had a CBD vaping device and noted that the vehicle was a car that had been rented by his brother. 

Scent of Cannabis Cited as Cause for Search

Although they admitted that they did detect the odor of marijuana on Moore, the officers cited the scent of cannabis coming from the car as cause to search the vehicle and Moore. The officers stated that during the search, they noted that Moore’s belt buckle appeared to be askew and upon looking closer, discovered a bulge in his pants. After closer examination, the officers discovered a hidden pocket inside the zipper of Moore’s pants, where they discovered packets of fentanyl and cocaine.

Police then arrested Moore and charged him with possession of narcotics, although he was not charged with possession of marijuana. Moore’s lawyers argued that because the police officers did not smell marijuana on Moore and because of the legality of CBD and hemp, which has an odor indistinguishable from marijuana, the police officers did not have probable cause for the search. Thus, the drugs found in the search should be excluded from evidence.

A circuit court judge and an appeals court agreed and ruled that the evidence discovered in the search was not admissible. Prosecutors appealed the rulings, saying the lower courts erred when they ruled the evidence inadmissible for trial.

Decision Overrules Lower Courts in Wisconsin

The Supreme Court disagreed with the previous rulings, overruling the lower court decisions and deciding the evidence gained in the search could be used in court. In a majority opinion written by Justice Brian Hagedorn, the court’s conservative majority found that because Moore was the only person in the vehicle, the police could reasonably assume that he “was probably connected with the illegal substance the officers identified.”

The decision relied on a 1999 Supreme Court decision that found police could arrest a driver because they connected him to the odor of cannabis in the car he was driving. That ruling said that the “unmistakable” scent of a controlled substance was evidence that a crime had been committed.

But the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s liberal minority questioned the 1999 ruling and its relevance to Moore’s case, saying that the police officers did not have strong evidence that the cannabis odor was coming from Moore. They also noted that the earlier ruling is outdated and does not take into account the subsequent legalization of hemp and CBD. 

“Officers who believe they smell marijuana coming from a vehicle may just as likely be smelling raw or smoked hemp, which is not criminal activity,” Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet wrote in a dissenting opinion that was joined by two additional justices.

After Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling was released, Moore’s attorney, Joshua Hargrove, warned that the decision could allow law enforcement offices to justify searches based on unreliable conclusions without being held accountable in court.

“This opinion could subject more citizens engaged in lawful behavior to arrest,” he said in a statement quoted by the Associated Press.

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