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Can the Police Search My Car if They Smell Marijuana?

Imagine you’re pulled over for a traffic offense like speeding, or expired registration. When the officer approaches your window he asks the typical question like “do you know why I pulled you over,” or requests that you provide license and insurance. Next, the officer tells you that they smell marijuana. You’re confused, you haven’t been smoking marijuana, and never have even smoked in your car. The officer now wants to search you and your car. What should you do? Cases like State v. Greenwood, tell us that the odor of marijuana amounts to probable cause to search a vehicle. It seems that officers are using this excuse to search cars more and more. But, there are limits to who can be searched. Probable cause to search the occupants of a car must be individualized. If the odor of marijuana is clearly coming from just one occupant, only that person may be searched. In the recent 2016 case, State v. Pigford, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held further that if there are passengers in the car, and the odor cannot be localized to just one person, no occupants should be searched.

What about my purse? If they cannot search me, can they search my purse?

It depends where your purse is located in the car. If it is in the trunk, they cannot search your purse without specific probable cause to search the trunk. Even if your purse is in the passenger compartment, you may be able to argue that a search of your purse was not valid, because you did not consent to that search. If the officer claims that they smell raw marijuana, it would be unreasonable for them to search a tiny compartment within your purse where no sample of marijuana large enough could be contained to emanate an odor. This also applies to the smell of burned marijuana. Officers can only search places that could contain what they are looking for. If your purse or wallet are too small to contain the weed or too distant from where they claim to smell marijuana, you may have an argument to prove that the search was unconstitutional.

If you were stopped for a traffic offense, and then charged with possession of marijuana or possession of drug paraphernalia call The Law Offices of Wiley Nickel, PLLC for a free consultation. Attorney Kristi Haddock and Attorney Wiley Nickel are available by phone at 919-585- 1486. Our office is located in Cary near the intersection of Harrison Avenue and I-40.