Do Police Lie About Smelling ‘An Odor of Marijuana’?

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Police officers often use six words to justify a search: “I smelled an odor of marijuana.” New York courts long have ruled if a car smells like marijuana smoke, the police can search it possibly the occupants also without a warrant. In July, a Bronx judge ruled that officers claim to smell marijuana so often that it strains credulity. She called on judges across the state to stop letting police officers get away with lying about it, the New York Times reports. “The time has come to reject the canard of marijuana emanating from nearly every vehicle subject to a traffic stop,” Judge April Newbauer wrote in a case involving a gun the police discovered in car they had searched after claiming to have smelled marijuana. “So ubiquitous has police testimony about odors from cars become that it should be subject to a heightened level of scrutiny if it is to supply the grounds for a search.”

Newbauer’s ruling shows how marijuana’s status as contraband remains deeply embedded in the criminal justice system, even as the police and prosecutors have begun to wind down arrests and prosecutions for marijuana. The presence of a marijuana odor still serves as a justification to detain people and search them, sometimes leading to the discovery of more serious contraband, including guns. One woman who served on a grand jury in Brooklyn recalled hearing officers in three separate cases claim to have “detected a strong odor of marijuana” and use it as justification for a stop or a search. Such testimony can be the final word on whether a search was lawful or unconstitutional in New York. Some other states have more stringent rules. North Carolina does not allow the smell of pot to justify a search of a vehicle’s occupants.