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Area Law Enforcement Weigh Options in Wake of SJC Ruling on Marijuana Odor

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
Local law enforcement officials are trying to figure how they will be affected by a recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling that says the odor of burnt marijuana does not give a police officer enough reason to search a motor vehicle. Some area police chiefs say the high court's April 19 decision will make their officers' jobs more difficult, though they believe that various circumstances will still arise to justify police in ordering people to exit their cars during traffic stops.

"The ruling doesn't make a lot of sense, but it is what it is, and we'll have to deal with it," said New Bedford Acting Police Chief David A. Provencher.

"Recognizing the odor of marijuana is just one step in the process. It's not the whole process. This is not a crushing defeat to law enforcement," Provencher said.

The SJC cited a 2008 state law that decriminalized 1 ounce or less of marijuana in concluding that police do not have probable cause to suspect criminal activity when they smell pot inside a car.

Defense attorneys had been making that argument, and they commended the court for saying the new law provides a "clear directive" to police departments to treat marijuana odor as a noncriminal offense. "This is something the defense lawyers have been saying for years," said Michelle Rioux, a New Bedford defense attorney. "The smell of marijuana smoke doesn't mean there is more marijuana, or that there is another crime going on in the car. Thanks to the new ruling, we have something to support that," Rioux said.

"This tries to prevent overzealous police from acting out." However, police officials argue that marijuana usage, even in small amounts, often accompanies other criminal activity, such as illegal gun possession and drug dealing.

"It's been our experience that people driving around, smoking marijuana, tends to lead to other things and other issues," said Dartmouth Police Chief Timothy M. Lee.

"Bad guys don't just do small stuff," Provencher said. "The little stuff is the doorway to get them for the bigger stuff."

The SJC ruled in a case where Boston police, after noticing a marijuana odor inside a stopped vehicle, seized crack cocaine from a man inside the car. The man told police he had the crack for himself, but the SJC ruling throws his statement out of court.

"Obviously, this will have an impact on officers' ability to investigate further criminal activity," said Fairhaven Police Chief Michael J. Myers, who was not surprised with the SJC decision.

"Once they decriminalized 1 ounce of marijuana, this wasn't totally unexpected," Myers said.

Westport Police Detective Jeffrey Majewski said the ruling was a serious setback to law enforcement.

"If we can't use that as probable cause anymore, I think a lot of crimes are going to go undetected," Majewski said, adding that the decriminalization of smaller amounts of marijuana has encouraged more young people to smoke pot. "Recently, we had a 13-year-old boy get caught smoking marijuana on a school bus. I think the court system is sending a strong message that this is more acceptable."

However, Acushnet Police Chief Michael Alves said police officers can still order people to exit a vehicle with marijuana smoke if passengers behave suspiciously, or if the officers see any contraband inside the vehicle, such as drug paraphernalia.

Alves noted that drivers who appear to have smoked marijuana could still be given a field sobriety test, and arrested for being under the influence of drugs. "Things are a little more complicated than just what the SJC ruling said," Alves argued.

"It's not black and white. They're talking about the mere smell alone, but once you put other factors into it, it opens the door to searches." Provencher said criminal investigations do not stop at marijuana smoke. "It will make life difficult at the end of the day, but the officers always have the ability on scene to make other observations," he said. "This is not going to stop us from actively engaging in motor vehicle stops."

NewsHawk: Jim Behr: 420 MAGAZINE
Source: Standard-Times (New Bedford, MA)
Copyright: 2011 South Coast Media Group
Contact: letters@s-t.com
Website: SouthCoastToday.com
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