You’ve been pulled over and the officer says they can smell something funny in your car. They tell you it smells like marijuana. They ask you to search your car. What do you do?
No matter whether you have anything illegal in your car or not, this is a stressful situation. Of course, if you do have something illegal in your car, the situation is that much more stressful.
If the officer says they smell marijuana coming from the vehicle, it’s a safe bet they’re going to want to search the car. Can they? Do they need your permission?
Sadly, they can. And sadly, they don’t.
In Utah, “it is well settled that the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle establishes probable cause for the warrantless search of that vehicle.” State v. Wright, 1999 UT App 86, ¶ 9.
This raises some questions, and should probably raise some eyebrows: Did the officer actually smell weed in the car? Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing this to a certainty. And if the officer says they smell it, that’s sufficient to establish probable cause for a warrantless search.
When thinking about these issues, it’s easy to get philosophical about how far we may have come from the text of the Fourth Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Philosophical ponderings aside, people who smoke marijuana (you know who you are) should keep in mind that, generally, marijuana is waaaayyy stinkier than you think it is. So while Utah laws can be—and are—abused by overzealous cops, you potheads out there tend to reek of your weed.
The take away? If you don’t want to end up in jail, best avoid weed altogether until it’s legal in Utah. If you don’t avoid it altogether – at least keep it far away from your car, and definitely don’t drive while high. Ever.
But also: Never consent to a search. The cops may search anyway, and they may have a legal basis to do so. But you’re not doing yourself any favors by doing their job for them.