Ruling Could Have Massive Implications for Drivers in Illinois

In an update to our previous blog about law enforcement’s ability to search a driver’s vehicle in cases in which officers claim to smell marijuana to effectuate a vehicle search, the Illinois Supreme Court this week heard the consolidation of two cases in which the defendant’s are challenging the rationale for said stops that have led to convictions for marijuana possession. In both cases, People v. Molina and People v. Redmond, law enforcement claimed to smell cannabis to search the car and, upon finding marijuana, charged the individuals for essentially failing to transport marijuana in an odor-proof container, as required by state law. Defense attorneys for both defendant-appellants argue that the smell of cannabis alone should not qualify as probable cause to search a vehicle given that marijuana possession is no longer illegal in the state and that they must be able to point to other factors that would lead an officer to believe the driver is also impaired, similar to alcohol. The ACLU and National Associate of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed briefs in support of the defendants, arguing that there is a pattern of law enforcement using marijuana smell as a pretext to disproportionately search people of color’s vehicles and the director of the ACLU, Alexandra Block, pointed out that an officer claiming to smell marijuana is difficult to challenge in court because, “You can’t see (a smell) on  body worn camera.” Illinois could join other state supreme courts, including Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin, that have all ruled that the mere smell of marijuana is not enough to justify a stop and search of a vehicle. However as the Court rules later this year on the issue, there is still the outstanding bill in the Illinois state Congress that would ratify that smell enough is not enough to justify a search, and the bill’s sponsor has said she has considered reviving the measure depending on how the Supreme Court rules in the case at hand. Either way, defendants facing criminal charges stemming from the claimed smell of marijuana that led to a search and arrest should monitor these developments and make sure they hire experienced criminal defense attorneys who can preserve the issue while these consolidated cases are decided and continue to protect their valuable constitutional rights as a defendant in a criminal case.