Can Police Search My Car If They Smell Marijuana?

When law enforcement officers claim they smell marijuana during a traffic stop, they have the right, in the absence of any other circumstances, to search the individuals in the car as well as the interior of the car, pursuant to the holding in State v. Betz, 815 So. 2d 627 (Fla. 2002), a case decided by the Florida Supreme Court.

In Betz, after a traffic stop, police officers smelled marijuana on the driver’s clothes and inside his vehicle, which constituted sufficient probable cause to search both his person and the interior of his vehicle for weapons and contraband. However, police additionally searched the trunk of Betz’ car and found a bag of marijuana, which the prosecutor presented as evidence of a crime.

In the reversing part of the decision, the Florida Appeals Court ruled that the probable cause which existed to search the interior of the vehicle did not extend to the trunk or containers therein. Therefore, the bag of marijuana discovered inside Betz’s trunk was obtained illegally, and it should have been inadmissible in Betz’s original criminal trial.

However, the Florida Supreme Court overruled the appellate court holding that the police officers had the right to search the entire vehicle under a “totality of the circumstances” analysis. These circumstances included the smell of marijuana on Betz and in his vehicle, his nervous demeanor during questioning by the officers, and the discovery of marijuana on his person. These circumstances taken together presented the police officers with sufficient probable cause to search the defendant’s entire vehicle.

Thus, pursuant to Betz, the smell of marijuana alone provides police officers with probable cause to conduct a search of your person and the interior of their vehicle during a traffic stop. Moreover, if the smell is present with other factors, then it can provide sufficient probable cause for the police to search your entire vehicle. Often, the result of a search in this situation is that police find other controlled substances instead of marijuana, resulting in a felony arrest.

The facts of every police search must be thoroughly analyzed by an attorney experienced in search and seizure law. The admissibility of any evidence will most likely rest upon issues of the credibility of the officer compared to the car’s driver and passengers.

If you have been charged with a crime resulting from evidence obtained by a search and seizure conducted based upon a law enforcement officer allegedly detecting the smell of marijuana in your car or truck during a routine traffic stop, call Alan Fowler, an experienced Florida Keys criminal defense attorney, for a consultation at 305.912.2516.