Can the Police Search Your Vehicle if They Smell Marijuana

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When it comes to the legality of searching a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana, the issue can become quite complex.

Police officers cannot search a vehicle simply because they smell marijuana.

They must have probable cause to search the vehicle, such as witnessing the driver or passengers in possession of marijuana, before conducting a search.

If you find yourself in a situation where the police want to search your vehicle based on the smell of marijuana, it’s important to know your rights. Consulting with a legal expert who is well-versed in marijuana possession laws can provide you with the guidance and support you need.If you need legal assistance Arja Shah Law offers a free initial consultation to discuss your case. Do not hesitate to contact us.

This article will cover the following topics:

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests accounted for over 40% of all drug arrests in the United States, highlighting the frequency with which these situations arise.

police officer searching mans car

Arizona Search and Seizure Laws 

Arizona’s search and seizure laws, rooted in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, emphasize the protection of individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. The legal framework, primarily codified in the Arizona Revised Statutes, particularly § 13-3925, requires that any search or seizure must be justified by probable cause and is typically subject to the oversight of a court-issued warrant.

The state acknowledges several exceptions to the warrant requirement.

For instance, exigent circumstances, where there is an immediate need or an emergency situation, can justify a warrantless search. Another notable exception is the automobile exception, which allows law enforcement officers to search a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of a crime. Additionally, if a person voluntarily consents to a search, a warrant is not necessary.

What is Considered Probable Cause 

Probable cause is a fundamental concept in criminal law that refers to the reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime. In Arizona, as in other states, it’s a standard used by law enforcement to justify searches, seizures, and arrests.

For probable cause to exist, there must be more than mere suspicion; there needs to be factual evidence or circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed.

Examples of Probable Cause

  1. Observation of Illegal Substances or Contraband: If law enforcement officers see illegal drugs, weapons, or other contraband in plain view, this can constitute probable cause for a search or an arrest.
  2. Suspicious Behavior: Actions that indicate criminal activity, such as attempting to flee from police, engaging in a transaction that appears to be a drug deal, or tampering with evidence, can be considered probable cause.
  3. Information from Reliable Sources: Tips or information from credible witnesses or informants can provide probable cause, especially if the information is detailed and corroborated by police investigation.
  4. Physical Evidence: Signs of a break-in, such as a broken window or door, or the presence of tools commonly used in burglaries, can lead to probable cause for an arrest or a search.
  5. Odor of Illegal Substances: The smell of illegal drugs, such as marijuana (though this is nuanced in states where marijuana is legal), can provide probable cause for a vehicle search or further investigation.
  6. Incriminating Statements or Admissions: Statements made by a suspect that imply involvement in a crime can establish probable cause for an arrest or a search.
  7. Prior Criminal Record: In certain cases, a known criminal history, in conjunction with other suspicious factors, can contribute to establishing probable cause.

It’s important to note that probable cause is determined based on the totality of circumstances and can vary from case to case.

The determination of whether probable cause exists is often a key issue in criminal proceedings and can significantly impact the admissibility of evidence and the overall outcome of a case.

 In Arizona, as in all states, the legality of an officer’s actions often hinges on whether they had probable cause at the time of the search, seizure, or arrest.

The odor of marijuana itself does not automatically justify a vehicle search without considering other factors. 

This is due to the legal possession and use allowed under Proposition 207 for adults over the age of 21. However, this does not entirely remove the smell as a factor in establishing probable cause. 

Instead, officers are required to assess additional evidence or circumstances alongside the odor to determine whether a crime might be occurring.

This means that while the smell of marijuana can contribute to probable cause, it must be accompanied by other indicators of illegal activity to justify a search. Officers are encouraged to look for signs of impaired driving, unauthorized distribution, or possession amounts exceeding legal limits before concluding a crime is being committed.

officer conducting a marijuana field sobriety test

Will I have to Perform a Field Sobriety Test if They Smell Marijuana?

Arizona law enforcement officers are trained to detect and assess signs of impairment. If an officer smells marijuana, it could raise their suspicion that the driver might be impaired. This suspicion, coupled with other factors such as the driver’s behavior, mannerisms, or other visible signs, can lead to a request for field sobriety tests. These tests are designed to assess the driver’s physical and cognitive abilities, which can be impaired by marijuana usage.

It’s important to note that while the smell of marijuana can lead to an officer suspecting DUI and requesting field sobriety tests, the tests themselves are not definitive proof of impairment by marijuana. The field sobriety tests used are more traditionally associated with alcohol impairment and may not be entirely accurate for assessing marijuana impairment. However, failure in these tests can still lead to further actions by the officer, including arrest and chemical testing for intoxication.

In Arizona, driving with any illegal drug or its metabolite including marijuana in your system is grounds for a DUI charge, regardless of impairment.

This means that even if a person is not currently impaired but has used marijuana recently enough to have metabolites in their system, they can still be charged with a DUI.

Can Officers Tell the Difference Between Weed Obtained Legally vs Illegally

Law enforcement officers face significant challenges in distinguishing between marijuana obtained legally and illegally. Physically, marijuana is indistinguishable regardless of its source.

Officers usually rely on contextual factors, such as the presence of legal documentation like a medical marijuana card or proof of purchase, to infer the legality of marijuana possession.

However, in the field, they lack the means to ascertain the substance’s origin definitively. The varied legal status of marijuana across different jurisdictions further complicates this issue, as what is legal in one area may be illegal in another. Officers are trained to focus on identifying impairment, possession beyond legal limits, and unauthorized distribution.

Technological advancements for on-site testing of marijuana are emerging, but these are not yet a standard tool for routine stops. Ultimately, distinguishing legal from illegal marijuana largely depends on circumstantial evidence and adherence to specific state laws.

women showing identification to officer during a traffic stop

What Should I Do in a Traffic Stop, if the Police Smell Weed 

Being stopped by the police can be a stressful experience, especially if they suspect the presence of marijuana. Here are steps to consider if you find yourself in such a situation:

  1. Stay Calm and Composed: Your demeanor can significantly impact the interaction. Remain calm, keep your hands visible, and avoid making sudden movements.
  2. Be Polite and Respectful: Address the officer courteously. Being confrontational can escalate the situation.
  3. Provide Requested Documentation: You are required to show your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance when asked by law enforcement.
  4. Exercise Your Right to Remain Silent: While you should provide identification information, you are not obliged to answer questions about where you have been, what you have been doing, or whether you have consumed marijuana. Politely inform the officer that you choose to exercise your right to remain silent.
  5. Do Not Consent to a Search: If the officer asks to search your vehicle, you have the right to refuse. However, if the officer believes they have probable cause, such as the smell of marijuana, along with additional factors, they may be legally allowed to conduct a search without your consent.
  6. Field Sobriety Tests: You have the right to refuse field sobriety tests in Arizona, but be aware that refusal can lead to arrest and further investigation.
  7. Follow Instructions if Arrested: If you are arrested, follow the officer’s instructions. Do not resist arrest as this can lead to additional charges.
  8. Seek Legal Assistance: After the encounter, it is crucial to contact a criminal defense attorney experienced in DUI and drug-related offenses. They can provide guidance on your rights and the best course of action.
  9. Document the Encounter: After the stop, write down everything you remember, including the officer’s badge number, patrol car number, and the exact location of the stop. This information can be valuable if you need to contest the legality of the stop or search.
  10. Understand the Consequences: Be aware that driving with marijuana in your system is illegal in Arizona, even if you are not impaired. The legal ramifications can be severe, including DUI charges.

Remember, each situation is unique, and these guidelines are general advice. The best course of action can vary based on the specific circumstances of the traffic stop.

What are the Penalties for Marijuana Possession in Arizona

In Arizona, the legalization of marijuana under Proposition 207 has set boundaries for legal possession and cultivation. Adults 21 and over can possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana flower, 5 grams of concentrate, and grow up to 6 plants at home for personal use.

Possession between one ounce and 2.5 ounces is a civil offense, punishable by a $100 fine for a first offense, with escalating consequences for subsequent offenses.  

Possession exceeding these limits can lead to felony charges, with penalties ranging from 6 months to 3 years in jail and fines up to $150,000 depending on the amount. The sale or cultivation of marijuana beyond allowed personal amounts carries serious felony charges, emphasizing the importance of adherence to state laws. Public consumption remains a petty offense, and DUI laws strictly prohibit driving under the influence of cannabis

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

Arja Shah | Shah Law Firm A criminal defense attorney can be pivotal if you’re implicated in a DUI or search and seizure due to the odor of marijuana. Their role includes scrutinizing the legality of the stop and search, challenging the basis of the DUI arrest, and questioning the interpretation of evidence linked to marijuana use.

Experienced attorneys negotiate with prosecutors, aiming to reduce charges and penalties, and guide you through the legal intricacies of Arizona’s DUI laws. In court, they provide a strong defense, ensuring your constitutional rights are upheld.

For expert legal assistance in such cases, you can contact Arja Shah Law Firm at (602) 560-7408, they’re ready to defend your rights and guide you through the process.


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