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What's That Smell? Arizona Supreme Court Says Marijuana Odor Enough To Prompt Police Search

Medical marijuana
(Photo by Mark - CC BY 2.0)
Medical marijuana.

A skunky smell is reason enough for Arizona police to search your car.

A pair of new court rulings Monday morning allows the police to pursue a search of your home or your vehicle if they smell marijuana.

The state Supreme Court justices rejected arguments that the 2010 voter-approved law which allows some people to legally possess or use medical marijuana means that the smell alone is no longer evidence that a crime is occurring.

Chief Justice Scott Bales, writing for the unanimous court, said that law did not legalize the drug for the vast majority of Arizonans. "The odor of marijuana in most circumstances will warrant a reasonable person believing there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime is present," he wrote.

Bales specifically rejected the contention that the 2010 law means that the smell alone cannot trigger a search.

"Under that view, no person in Arizona would be subject to search or seizure by state or local police officers based only on an officer seeing or smelling marijuana,'' the chief justice said. The 2010 law "does not broadly alter the legal status of marijuana but instead specifies particular rights, immunities, and obligations for qualifying patients and others, such as designated caregivers."

The justices agreed in March to consider appeals of contradictory rulings by the Phoenix and Tucson divisions of the state Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel of the Phoenix division ruled the enactment of the medical marijuana law doesn't eliminate a legal doctrine that says the plain smell of marijuana is sufficient to establish probable cause for a search.

A ruling by a divided panel of the appeals court's Tucson division ruled that circumstances other than the mere smell of marijuana are now needed to provide the legal basis for a search warrant.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.