The State Supreme Court upheld rulings by lower courts to dismiss the charges, setting a new precedent for future vehicle searches based on the presence of marijuana odor.
The smell of cannabis is no longer a justifiable reason to conduct a vehicle search in Minnesota, according to a recent decision filed by the state's highest court. As first reported by KARE TV 11 on Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed a previous ruling by the State Court of Appeals that the presence of marijuana odor does not justify probable cause to search a vehicle under the state's automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
The decision stems from a 2021 case involving Adam Lloyd Torgerson, who was charged with possessing methamphetamine paraphernalia in the presence of a minor, and fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance following a traffic stop. Police initially pulled over Torgerson for an obscure and rarely enforced vehicle equipment violation - the light bar mounted on the vehicle's grill had more auxiliary driving lights than are permitted under Minnesota law.
During the stop, one of the officers smelled the scent of cannabis and conducted a vehicle search based on that odor evidence. The resulting search produced a film canister containing meth, three pipes and a small plastic bag of white powder. A subsequent field test confirmed the powdery substance to be meth, and Torgerson was arrested and charged.
However, there was one major problem with the search. The police were not looking for a meth pipe or meth. The only reason for further investigation was that the officers smelled cannabis. The recovery of the meth and accompanying paraphernalia surprised all parties. Still, there were no grounds to search Mr. Torgerson's vehicle legally.
At the initial trial, Torgerson's attorneys moved to suppress the evidence, stipulating that the arresting officers illegally expanded the simple traffic stop into a search without probable cause. During a hearing, the two officers testified that the cannabis scent wasn't among the weakest they'd ever encountered, nor was it the strongest. Likewise, they both indicated no signs of impairment from Mr. Torgerson.
After weighing all the evidence and testimony, a Meeker County District Court issued an order to suppress the evidence against Torgerson and dismiss the complaint. Not to be deterred, the State appealed the decision but was again denied by the State Court of Appeals.
In that ruling, the court said that because the officers did not witness Torgerson driving dangerously or erratically, did not remember him demonstrating any level of impairment, nervous or evasive behavior, or stealthy movement, and did not see any drug paraphernalia in plain sight in the vehicle, the search was unwarranted and illegal.
Determined to take the issue to the highest levels, if necessary, prosecutors finally turned to the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear the case. According to court documents, the State argued that "there is established precedent from our court and the United States Supreme Court that clearly holds the odor of marijuana, alone, is sufficient to support probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception."
Torgerson's legal team challenged that argument by stating, "Under the totality of circumstances test, the odor of marijuana, alone, cannot create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception."
Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with Torgerson and upheld the lower courts' decisions to suppress the evidence and dismiss the charges against the defendant. The Court's decision reads, "This search was justified only by the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Because we conclude that the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle alone is insufficient to create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, we affirm."
"This search was justified only by the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Because we conclude that the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle alone is insufficient to create the requisite probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, we affirm."
- Minnesota Supreme Court Decision
The court's decision is a significant win for the rights of individual citizens over illegal searches conducted by law enforcement. With the imagery, pain and anger of the George Floyd tragedy still fresh in the hearts and minds of Minnesotans and all Americans, the Supreme Court's bold and decisive ruling against searches like the ones conducted against Mr. Torgerson sets a significant precedent moving forward.
Meth is dangerous, and the police are justified in pursuing criminal activity involving the deadly narcotic. However, that battle must be conducted legally by law enforcement officials and without suppressing the rights of individual citizens. At least, that's what the Minnesota Supreme Court deems the new law of the land.