The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by agents of the state, including law enforcement officials. Of course, these rights are constantly being debated as new scenarios and technologies arise. Over the years, courts throughout the country have provided direction regarding when a warrantless search of a person’s car or property is permitted. Most such cases involve the existence of probable cause that a crime is being committed or that the search will yield evidence of a crime. Probable cause can be established in a number of ways, including if the officer detects the distinct odor of an illegal substance. It was exactly this situation that led to the arrest of an Illinois man last November when officers discovered more than $2 million worth of drugs in his car.
Across State Lines
Late last year, a 57-year-old man from Metropolis, Illinois—a small city on the Illinois-Kentucky border—was pulled over for speeding in Carter County, Missouri. During the stop, a sheriff’s deputy smelled what he thought was marijuana and conducted a search of the vehicle. The search uncovered more than 870 pounds of marijuana, 12 pounds of methamphetamine, and two pounds of cocaine, with a total estimated street value of $2.4 million.
The driver was arrested and charged in federal court with drug trafficking and delivery of controlled substance. Upon arrest, he reportedly waived his rights to remain silent and to an attorney and told police that he had obtained the drugs in Arizona with plans to sell them in southeast Missouri and southern Illinois. The man pleaded guilty to the charges, and early last week, he was back in a federal courtroom where he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Distinct Smell of Marijuana
While this particular example occurred in neighboring Missouri, it could just as easily been handled the same way in Illinois. The Illinois Supreme Court first recognized an officer’s detection of the smell of cannabis as probable cause to conduct a vehicle search in 1985 in People v. Stout. The ruling established a legal precedent that has been used many times since then. This means that if you pulled over for a legitimate reason—such as a traffic violation—and the officer smells marijuana in your car, he or she does not need to get a warrant to conduct a search. The search may even extend to your person and that of any passengers.
Changing laws regarding marijuana, however, may complicate the idea of smell-related probable cause in the near future. For example, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana, while technically illegal, is no longer a crime in Illinois; it is a civil offense similar to a parking ticket. Likewise, a person who is registered with state’s medical marijuana program is permitted to possess certain amounts of marijuana as well. In these situations, the smell of marijuana detected by an officer would not necessarily indicate evidence of a crime. The existing legal precedents have yet to be challenged in a high-profile way by these recent developments in the state’s laws, so it remains to be seen how they will be handled by the court system.
Call Us for Help
If you or a loved one has been arrested and charged with a drug crime based on the officer smelling an illegal substance, you need legal guidance immediately. Contact an experienced Will County criminal defense attorney to discuss your case and your available options. Call 815-740-4025 for a free consultation at the Law Office of Jack L. Zaremba today.