The Minnesota State Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that marijuana odor is not enough evidence in and of itself to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. The ruling falls in line with a policy that had previously been enacted by the Minneapolis Police Department, which said they would no longer use the smell of marijuana as reason to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle.
The ruling was made in the case of State of Minnesota v. Adam Lloyd Torgerson. Case details show that back in 2021, Torgerson was originally stopped by police because a light bar mounted on his vehicle’s grill violated Minnesota law. Police noted the odor of marijuana during their interaction with Torgerson, but he denied that he had any in the vehicle. A second officer arrived on the scene and asked Torgerson if there was marijuana in the vehicle, and although he replied no, he admitted that he had smoked pot in the past.
Police told Torgerson that the marijuana odor gave them probable case to search the vehicle, and the search turned up drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine. Torgerson was charged with possession of methamphetamine paraphernalia in the presence of a minor and fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance.
Defense Suppresses Evidence
Torgerson filed a motion to suppress the drug evidence that was found during the search on the grounds that the officers illegally turned the traffic stop into a search without a warrant or probable cause. The district court granted the motion, which suppressed the evidence and led to a dismissal of the complaint. In their decision to suppress the evidence, the court noted that the smell of alcohol in a vehicle did not warrant a vehicle search, and the same logic should apply to marijuana odor.
The state appealed, but the lower court’s decision was affirmed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. That court did not rule on whether marijuana odor alone established probable cause, but they noted that police did not witness Torgerson driving unsafely, did not see drugs in plain view and did not witness Torgerson engaging in nervous or evasive behavior. On appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the decision, and they declined to establish a clear rule that the smell of marijuana always creates the requisite probable cause to conduct a vehicle search.
“There was nothing in Torgerson’s actions to give suspicion that he was under the influence while driving, no drug paraphernalia or other evidence to indicate that the marijuana was being used in a manner, or was of such a quantity, so as to be criminally illegal, and no evidence showing that any use was not for legal medicinal purposes,” the court wrote. “In the absence of any other evidence as part of the totality of the circumstances analysis, the evidence of the medium-strength odor of marijuana, on its own, is insufficient to establish a fair probability that the search would yield evidence of criminally illegal drug-related contraband or conduct.”
Chief Justic Lorie Gildea authored the dissent, joined by Justice G. Barry Anderson. Gildea argued that the standard for probable cause is not very high, and that common sense should suggest that the odor of marijuana suggests there is probable cause that the driver recently smoked marijuana or has some in their vehicle.
“Common sense tells us that when a person has recently smoked marijuana in their car, there is a fair chance that more marijuana for personal use will be in the car,” Gildea opined. “[T]he inquiry is not whether it was more likely than not that Torgerson had illegal marijuana in his vehicle, the inquiry is whether—after noticing the smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle on both the driver’s and passenger’s sides—a reasonable person would conclude that there was a fair probability that there was an illegal amount of marijuana in the vehicle.”
Since the original arrest, Minnesota has legalized marijuana for personal use, although it is still illegal to drive under the influence of the drug.
This was an interesting case to follow from start to finish, and we’re glad that individual rights came out on top. And remember, if you need help with a criminal matter, reach out to the team at Appelman Law Firm today at (952) 224-2277.