Should the Odor of Cannabis Constitute Probable Cause in Florida?
Oh the times, they are a changin’.
Every time I walk into the Orange County Courthouse, I see some guy asking me to sign a petition to “put medical marijuana on Florida’s Ballot”. Somehow, whenever I’m dressed in my work uniform (suit, tie, and briefcase, don’t forget the briefcase), the petition signing hawks leave me alone. It may be that too many “suits” turn out to be jerks, so they just don’t bother. I understand that, and agree. But, if I had the time, I would chat up the “medical marijuana sign holder” and tell him that medical marijuana is perfectly legal in the State of Florida. It has been for almost a year now.
Most people don’t realize this. Medical marijuana is legal in Florida. I’ll keep saying it until everyone takes down the signs asking that we make it legal. It’s legal. Governor Rick Scott signed the law back in 2014, and it took effect on January 1, 2015. The law is found in Florida Statute 381.986, entitled “Compassionate use of low-THC cannabis”.
Now, the question for today may sound like another episode of Inside Baseball, and for that, I’m slightly sorry. It is the effect this law has on probable cause that should concern we citizens. Law enforcement may not search your person, home, or vehicle without a warrant so long as they have “probable cause”. Nine times out of ten, probable cause involves some officer telling his buddy “You smell weed? Yea, I smell weed too, let’s search this place”. Five times out of ten, this odor is detected after a citizen denies the officer permission to search. Up until January 1, 2015, probable cause based upon the smell of weed made a bit of sense, as marijuana was illegal in any form up until that point.
For years now, we defense attorneys have tolerated fabricated odor of cannabis searches that never reveal cannabis. It sounds funny, but some officers have searched a vehicle based upon the odor of cannabis–only to find no marijuana. Shocking, I know. The only drugs found on these “odor of cannabis searches” were cocaine or heroin or oxycodone—none of which smell like weed. Not surprisingly, most prosecutors buy into this odor of cannabis excuse. Even judges buy into it, reasoning that, “well, I guess the defendant had recently smoked weed, that’s probably what the officer smelled, so I’m going to find probable cause for the search based upon the officer’s detection of the odor of cannabis”. Sure, there are several logical objections to such reasoning, if you can find a judge interested in logic (there are plenty). For example, the odor of burnt cannabis is only evidence of a completed crime (the weed is now consumed by fire, duh), so the odor is not evidence that someone is currently committing the crime of possession of cannabis. Furthermore, in cases where a search is conducted based upon the odor—but no weed is recovered–the officer’s nose obviously isn’t accurate enough to detect the presence of cannabis. So, what business does the court have relying on such an inaccurate nose to find probable cause? We have K9’s who, we all can agree, are far better at detecting the scent of drugs than humans—yet several courts have suppressed evidence when it can be shown that the particular K9 utilized is not accurate enough to form probable cause (yes, the police must keep records of their K9’s “accuracy”, a story for another day). Why should a human be treated any different than a K9?
Well, I’m a little bit off track, as usual. We’re talking about searches. We’re talking about the government’s right to obtain a search warrant of your underwear drawer because they smell cannabis outside your home. We’re talking about a speeding ticket that turns into a 4 hour ordeal in which the panels of your dashboard have been broken loose because some cop smelled weed when you rolled down your window (should have rolled down those windows the minute you saw the flashing lights, I’m just saying).
Prior to January 1, 2015, Florida courts have routinely held that the smell of cannabis indicates criminal activity. As we said before, any form of cannabis was illegal. But now, the possession of cannabis is no longer illegal. Now, cannabis possession is legal if possessed under Florida Statute 381.986. Now, the odor of this legal substance should no longer constitute probable cause to search anything.
How Florida’s cannabis statute will impact the determination of probable cause remains to be seen, but several states have had medical marijuana for a while now, so we can gain some wisdom from their decisions. For example, in Arizona, their appellate court addressed “the effect of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA) on determinations of probable cause. That Act renders possession, cultivation, and use of marijuana lawful under some circumstances. Accordingly, those circumstances—not the mere possession itself—now determine whether such activity is criminal or permitted under state law. For this reason, and for the reasons state below, we hold that the scent of marijuana, standing alone, is insufficient evidence of criminal activity to supply probable cause for a search warrant.” State v. Sisco, 359 P.3d 1 (2015).