Monday, October 18, 2021

Supreme Court won’t review a Md. pat-down search


The US Supreme Court decided yesterday not to hear an appeal from the Maryland attorney general in a case that involved searching a man, smelling raw marijuana in his car, and finding 70 grams of weed on his person, writes Steve Lash in Legal

By refusing to hear the appeal, the Supreme Court has let stand a controversial ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals that overturned the man’s conviction and nine-month prison sentence. Police didn’t have enough cause to search the car or frisk its passengers for weapons, the Court of Appeals ruled, just because they smelled marijuana.

In the case known as Joseph Norman Jr v Maryland, the appellate court ruled in March that police officers must have “reasonable articulable suspicion” based on the “totality of the circumstances” that the passenger is armed and dangerous before they can frisk him or her in a constitutional manner. Just the strong smell of marijuana coming from the car isn’t enough to give them that reasonable suspicion.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E Frosh said in his petition for appeal that the smell of marijuana gives police a reasonable concern for the safety of officers on the scene. That justifies, he argued, a pat-down of passengers without violating their constitutional Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

“By withholding authority to frisk the occupants of a car that an officer already has probable cause to search, and by retreating from the widely recognized association of drugs and guns particularly in the circumstances of drug trafficking or transport on the nation’s roads, the decision below makes constitutionally unreasonable the educated instincts that keep traffic officers alive,” he wrote. “This should not be.”

But the appellate court said that the smell only gives officers reasonable suspicion of crimes like drug trafficking, not of any situation that would threaten their safety in pulling the vehicle over.

“We hold that, where an odor of marijuana emanates from a vehicle with multiple occupants, a law enforcement officer may frisk an occupant of the vehicle if an additional circumstance or circumstances give rise to reasonable articulable suspicion that the occupant is armed and dangerous,” wrote Judge Shirley M Watts for the majority.

“Stated otherwise, for a law enforcement officer to have reasonable articulable suspicion to frisk one of multiple occupants of a vehicle from which an odor of marijuana is emanating, the totality of the circumstances must indicate that the occupant in question is armed and dangerous. An odor of marijuana alone emanating from a vehicle with multiple occupants does not give rise to reasonable articulable suspicion that the vehicle’s occupants are armed and dangerous and subject to frisk.”

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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