Can North Carolina Police Lawfully Search a Car and the Occupants If They Smell the Odor of Marijuana Emanating from the Car?

Police Search at Car After Smelling Marijuana

Although more than half the states have legalized marijuana to some extent, marijuana possession is still illegal in North Carolina. Possession can result in felony or misdemeanor charges, depending on the amount. Penalties can include prison time and fines.

Drug offenses are subject to a wide range of laws regarding search and seizure of evidence, including the prohibition in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Evidence obtained from unlawful searches cannot be used in court and will be suppressed by a court. This Fourth Amendment principle is referred to as the “exclusionary rule.”

The exclusionary rule requires police to obtain search warrants in most cases. Motor vehicles are an exception. Police do not need to obtain a warrant to search a vehicle if they have “probable cause” to believe that the vehicle contains illegal items.

The courts in each state are responsible for interpreting and applying the Fourth Amendment prohibition and requirements. A recent North Carolina appellate court case clarified the rules for searching a vehicle and the occupants when police detect the odor of marijuana coming from inside the car.

Search of a Motor Vehicle Is Legal If Police Smell the Odor of Marijuana

North Carolina courts have determined that the odor of marijuana coming from inside a car constitutes the required probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle itself. The North Carolina Court of Appeals repeated that standard in a recent case, State v. Pigford. In that case, the court also addressed the separate question of whether smelling the odor of marijuana coming from inside a car is sufficient probable cause to search an occupant of the car.

In the Pigford case, a driver and one passenger were traveling in a car that was stopped by police at a motor vehicle checkpoint. When the driver lowered his side window, the officer smelled the odor of marijuana coming from inside the car but was unable to establish the exact origin of the odor. He ordered the driver out of the car, searched him, and found cocaine in his pocket. The driver was arrested for possession of the cocaine. A subsequent search of the car revealed a bag of marijuana under the driver’s seat and a stolen handgun on the back passenger seat. The driver was also charged with offenses relating to the evidence from inside the car.

When the driver’s case went to trial, the court refused to suppress the evidence obtained from searching the driver and found that that the odor of marijuana was sufficient probable cause for the officer to search the driver. The driver appealed the decision.

Search of a Person Is Justified Only When There Are Specific Incriminating Facts

The appellate court distinguished cases involving search of a vehicle from those involving search of an individual. While the odor of marijuana from inside a vehicle authorizes a warrantless search of the vehicle, that authorization does not automatically extend to searching the occupants of the vehicle. There must be additional incriminating facts linking the marijuana to the occupant who is searched.

For example, one prior case involved a police officer who noticed a strong odor of marijuana coming from a specific person when that person walked by the officer, which justified searching that person. In a different case, where there was no link between the marijuana smell and a particular person, police were not justified in searching that person when the odor could just as easily have come from another person in the car.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in the Pigford case based on lack of justification for the search of the driver. In the re-trial, the evidence found on the driver cannot be introduced on the basis of that search. However, the appellate court did raise the possibility that the evidence could be introduced on the basis of an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule known as the “inevitable discovery” exception.

The inevitable discovery exception, established by the United States Supreme Court, provides that illegally-obtained evidence may be admitted at trial if the prosecution proves that the evidence eventually would have been found by lawful means. In the Pigford case, the police had probable cause to search the vehicle initially based on the odor of marijuana, which would have led to the driver’s arrest based on the evidence in the car. A standard search of the driver incident to that arrest would have led to discovery of the cocaine. Since the cocaine would have been lawfully obtained in that manner, it may be admissible at the new trial under the inevitable discovery exception.

Based on the Pigford case, North Carolina police officers continue to have lawful authority to search a car when they detect the odor of marijuana coming from inside. However, with regard to the driver and passengers in the car, the search of a person is not lawful unless the officer has additional, specific reasons to believe that the odor is directly connected to the individual.

The outcome of every criminal case, whether at trial or on appeal, is totally dependent on the specific facts of the case. Even one different fact can lead to a completely different result from that reached in another case. The cases discussed above do not guarantee a similar or identical result in a similar case with slightly different facts. If you are facing any drug-related charges, you should consult directly with an experienced criminal attorney, who will advise you how the laws apply to your specific situation.

Schedule an Initial No-Fee Consultation

Our North Carolina criminal defense attorneys at The Twiford Law Firm have the background and skill to represent and advise you regarding application of the law to the specific facts of your case. Call us at 252-338-4151 (Elizabeth City) or 252-435-2811 (Moyock) or complete our online form to schedule a consultation. There is no charge for your first consultation.

Our criminal defense attorneys are available to meet with individuals who are incarcerated; however, those consultations are not covered by our free initial consultation policy for criminal cases.

Categories: Criminal Defense

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