Minnesota High Court Rules: Smell of Marijuana Not Enough for Vehicle Search During Traffic Stops, ACLU Amicus Brief Cited
By R Tamara de Silva
The Minnesota Supreme Court has recently delivered a pivotal ruling on what criteria police officers may employ to search a vehicle during a traffic stop. Specifically, the court clarified that the smell of marijuana alone is not sufficient for establishing "reasonable suspicion" to search a vehicle for contraband or evidence of criminal activity. The 26-page decision upheld a lower court's ruling that had dismissed evidence obtained by Litchfield police in a case involving Adam Lloyd Torgerson.
Background of the Case
Adam Lloyd Torgerson was pulled over for an infraction involving his vehicle's front-facing lights. Officers claimed to detect a strong odor of burnt marijuana during the traffic stop. Despite Torgerson and his wife's denial of having marijuana in the car, a search was conducted, leading to an alleged discovery of what police identified as methamphetamine. Torgerson was subsequently charged with various drug-related offenses.
Torgerson’s defense sought to suppress the evidence, arguing the sole justification for the search was the smell of marijuana. The trial court concurred, and the state then appealed. In their ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court noted that "probable cause analysis calls for the odor of marijuana to be one of the circumstances considered as part of the totality of the circumstances." Simply put, while the smell of marijuana could be a contributing factor in establishing probable cause, it cannot be the sole factor.
The court's majority opinion leaned on a 2005 ruling, State v. Burbach, which similarly stated that the smell of alcohol alone was not sufficient to justify a vehicle search.
ACLU's Amicus Brief
Significantly, the court cited an amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which presented compelling data and studies supporting the position that the smell of marijuana alone should not constitute probable cause. According to the Minnesota Medical Cannabis Dashboard, approximately 40,000 people in Minnesota are permitted to possess medical cannabis, a number expected to double or triple. The ACLU also presented a study from Philadelphia, analyzing 25,000 traffic stops, which revealed that contraband was found in only 9.4% of cases where police claimed to smell marijuana. This ratio suggests that the smell alone hardly guarantees a "fair probability" of discovering criminal activity. The ACLU further pointed out that cannabidiol (CBD) cigarettes also emit an odor similar to burnt cannabis but are legal to possess, adding another layer of complexity to relying solely on smell as a basis for a search.
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea dissented, stating that the majority's ruling lacked "common sense," and that the smell should have been enough to warrant a search. Her dissent was joined by Justice Barry Anderson, both of whom were appointed by a Republican governor.
Timing and Context
The ruling arrived months after Minnesota legalized the possession and sale of recreational cannabis, but was based on laws effective at the time of Torgerson's arrest in July 2021, which had stricter limitations on marijuana possession.
Implications for Criminal Defense
This ruling is especially important for individuals facing criminal charges where evidence was obtained solely based on the smell of marijuana. The judgment sets a precedent that can help defendants contest the legality of such searches, emphasizing that other factors must contribute to establishing probable cause. The ACLU’s amicus brief further underscores this point by presenting data questioning the efficacy of relying solely on the smell of marijuana as a basis for vehicle searches.
Minnesota v. Adam Lloyd Torgerson, case number A22-0425, in the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota. The decision can be read here.
If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges involving a vehicle search it is essential to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact the De Silva Law Offices today for a consultation.
*The information in this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. For personalized legal advice, consult an experienced and qualified attorney.