Minnesota Supreme Court: Smell of marijuana not enough to authorize vehicle searches

The Minnesota Supreme Court has set a new standard for when law enforcement can legally search a vehicle.

In an opinion filed Wednesday morning, the state’s highest court said the smell of marijuana, by itself, isn’t enough of a reason for law enforcement to search someone’s vehicle.

The decision stems from a July 2021 traffic stop in Litchfield, where an officer stopped a vehicle for an auxiliary light law violation. After approaching the vehicle, the officer noticed the smell of marijuana. While the driver denied having any marijuana, another officer approached and also smelled marijuana, court documents state.

Based solely on the smell, the second officer told the driver that gave them probable cause to search the vehicle, and a search resulted in the officers finding a small amount of methamphetamine and paraphernalia.

The driver was charged with fifth-degree drug possession but he moved to suppress the evidence, saying the smell of marijuana wasn’t enough of a reason to search his vehicle. The district court agreed, noting the state’s standard doesn’t allow vehicle searches based solely on the smell of alcohol so that same standard should apply to the smell of marijuana, according to court records.

Without the evidence found in the search, the charge against the driver was dismissed. The state appealed and the appellate court upheld the district court’s ruling, which led the state to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Court documents note the state argued the established precedent in Minnesota and from the U.S. Supreme Court showed that the smell of marijuana is enough to support probable cause to search a vehicle. But the Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed, noting the prior cases cited by prosecutors had other supporting factors for a vehicle search besides just the smell of marijuana or alcohol, such as the vehicle being illegally parked, erratic driving or underage passengers admitting to drinking. Instead, the justices decided the case most closely related to a case where the court ruled the smell of alcohol wasn’t enough to search a vehicle.

“The State essentially asks us to create a bright-line rule by holding that the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle, on its own, will always create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle,” the court’s opinion states in part. “Our precedent, however, shows that we have shied away from bright-line rules regarding probable cause and we have never held that the odor of marijuana (or any other substance), alone, is sufficient to create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle.”

The court also noted a small amount of marijuana, medical marijuana and hemp aren’t criminalized in the state, so officers have to consider “the totality of any other circumstances to determine whether there is a fair probability that a search will yield contraband or other evidence that marijuana is being used in a criminally illegal manner.”

Based on that, the court upheld the prior rulings that the officers didn’t have probable cause to search the driver’s vehicle in Litchfield.

Interestingly, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea disagreed with her colleagues, writing in her dissent that the officers did have probable cause to search the driver’s vehicle because even though small amounts of marijuana at the time were just a petty misdemeanor, that’s not the same as legal, so the smell would lead a reasonable person to assume there was marijuana in the car. She added that the law doesn’t require an officer to have certainty there is an illegal amount of marijuana in the vehicle, only that there is a fair probability.

Of course, the state legalized possession of certain amounts of marijuana starting last month, although driving while high remains illegal.