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Can the police search my car if they smell marijuana?

There is often significant confusion when it comes to the issue of traffic stops by law enforcement officials and, in particular, what they are legally permitted to do as far as searches are concerned.

In particular, one issue that understandably might not be entirely clear to the general public is whether law enforcement officials here in Florida have the right to conduct a search of a person's vehicle without their consent if they smell marijuana.

As much as people might not want to hear it, case law would seem to indicate that the answer is yes. Indeed, the leading authority on this subject is State v. Betz, a 2002 Supreme Court of Florida case.

According to the facts of the case, the defendant, Betz, was originally stopped by police officers in Clearwater for a malfunctioning headlight back in March 1998, and immediately exited his vehicle after being pulled over, taking care to close the door.

During their subsequent interaction with the defendant, the police officers noted both gray smoke and the smell of marijuana emanating from the vehicle's rolled down window. Thereafter, the officer conducted a search of the defendant, and placed him under arrest after discovering a bag of marijuana on his person.

The police officer next conducted a search of the vehicle trunk, where another bag of marijuana was discovered hidden in a metal box stored inside a briefcase.

Betz was ultimately charged with felony possession of marijuana and his attorney unsuccessfully sought to have both bags of marijuana suppressed (i.e., excluded from court) on the grounds that they were secured via an illegal search.  

The ruling was then appealed to the Second District Court of Appeal, which affirmed in part and reversed in part.

We'll continue this discussion of Betz in our next post.

If you have been charged with any sort of drug crime -- possession, trafficking, manufacturing -- please consider contacting an experienced legal professional as soon as possible as your freedom and your future may be at stake. 

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