El olor a marihuana no es causa probable de requisa ni arresto
La corte invalidó un procedimiento en el cual los oficiales de policía revisaron a alguien por el olor a marihuana, basada en las garantías constitucionales en el proceso penal
La Cuarta Enmienda de la Constitución de los Estados Unidos prohíbe los registros o requisas y las incautaciones sin causa probable y orden judicial. La cláusula es similar en distintas constituciones del mundo, incluyendo la de México, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina o Colombia. ¿Pero cuándo hay causa probable?
La causa probable para detener a una persona
El 1 de febrero de 2017, el oficial de policía Burch recibió un aviso sobre un individuo en la cuadra 400 de West Saratoga Street en la ciudad de Baltimore.
El informante no fue un informante confidencial, pero si fue alguien a quien el oficial Burch describió como
información confiable para él durante «un poco menos de un mes» antes del incidente en cuestión.
El oficial Burch transmitió el dato y una descripción del individuo a CitiWatch, que monitorea las cámaras de vigilancia de la ciudad de Baltimore.
El operador informó que una persona que coincide con la descripción dada por el oficial Burch fue observado por una cámara de vigilancia entrando en la Bag Mart, una tienda ubicada en 401 West Saratoga Street. Era un lugar candente, donde se solía vender droga o detener a gente con armas.
Cuando el oficial Burch y los otros agentes entraban a la tienda, el agente Burch vio que la tienda estaba «bastante
abarrotada ”y olía a marihuana.
El oficial Burch vio el movimiento del sospechoso desde una posición cercana a la caja registradora y siga a otros que se dirigían hacia la salida. El imputado sospechoso tenía una bolsa roja atada al pecho, caminaba normalmente y parecía
La requisa por olor a marihuana
El sospechoso pasó literalmente justo delante del oficial Burch, el oficial olió. «El olor a marihuana que emite la persona [del sospechoso]», asentaría luego en el acta de detención.
En ese momento, los oficiales habían pidió a los demás clientes que salieran de la tienda, dejando solo al propietario de la tienda, al sospechoso y a seis policías.
El oficial Burch testificó que se acercó y «detuvo» al sospechoso basándose en «el olor a marihuana y la información que [él] recibió para investigar más a fondo ”.
Al parecer hubo un forcejeo, cuando el oficial Burch aconsejó al sospechoso que se calmara mientras el oficial Curtis lo esposó.
La requisa corporal
Una vez que el peticionario fue esposado, el oficial Burch llevó a cabo un registro completo, una requisa corporal, del sospechoso.
Primero registró la bolsa roja y encontró una pistola dentro. Entonces, mientras buscaba bolsillos y en la cintura del sospechoso, este informó que llevaba una pequeña cantidad de marihuana.
El oficial Burch encontró esa cantidad de marihuana en un plástico sellado de una pulgada, en una bolsita en uno de los bolsillos del peticionario.
El fruto del árbol envenado
El sospechoso, a través de un abogado, presentó dos teorías para respaldar su moción para reprimir los frutos de la búsqueda. Es decir, para anular la prueba encontrado.
Primero argumentó que, de conformidad con Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), la policía no poseía la sospecha razonable necesaria para «detener» al sospechoso en el comienzo de su encuentro.
Independientemente de ese argumento, el imputado sostuvo que la requisa o registro del bolso que llevaba era ilegal porque en el momento en que el registro fue cometido, la policía carecía de causa probable para creer que había cometido un delito grave o estaba cometer un delito mayor o menor en su presencia.
Las garantías constitucionales sobre la detención arbitraria y la requisa
Para que un arresto o detención sin orden judicial sea razonable, debe haber una causa probable para creer que el arrestado cometió un delito mayor o estaba cometiendo un delito mayor o menor en el presencia de un oficial público, dijo la corte de Maryland.
La tenencia de menos de diez gramos de marihuana no es ni un delito grave ni un delito menor, sino una falta civil. Para arrestar legalmente alguien por tenencia de marihuana, el oficial debe creer que el detenido posee una cantidad de marihuana que sea delito, es decir, diez gramos o más.
La determinación de la cantidad de marihuana como causa probable para arrestar a alguien no puede determinarse solo por el olor.
En consecuencia, el mero olor a marihuana no crea una causa probable para creer que un arrestado posee una cantidad de ese sustancia que implique un delito. Por ende, el tribunal invalidó el procedimiento, y benefició al imputado.
El precedente Pacheco
En el caso Pacheco, dos policías notaron un «vehículo sospechoso» ocupado por Michael Pacheco aparcó (se estacionó) detrás de una lavandería.
Los oficiales se acercaron al vehículo y, al acercarse, olieron el olor a marihuana y observaron una marihuana
cigarrillo en la consola central.
Uno de los oficiales solicitó que el Sr. Pacheco le entergase el «porro», que el oficial luego testificó que inmediatamente supo que pesaba menos de diez gramos.
Se ordenó al Sr. Pacheco que saliera del vehículo. Los oficiales lo registraron y se encontró cocaína del bolsillo del Sr. Pacheco.
Luego registraron el vehículo y encontraron tallos de marihuana y papel de fumar. Pacheco recibió una citación civil por
posesión de menos de diez gramos de marihuana y fue acusado de posesión de cocaína con intención de distribuir.
El Sr. Pacheco presentó una moción para suprimir la cocaína de los cargos. Argumentó que la policía carecía de una causa probable para realizar el registro sin orden judicial tanto de su persona como de su vehículo porque no había razón para sospechar que poseía diez gramos o más de marihuana.
Este Tribunal sostuvo que el registro de la persona del señor Pacheco no era razonable, porque en el momento del registro, la policía no tenía una «causa probable para creer que el vehículo contiene contrabando o evidencia de un
crimen, más allá de la movilidad de los automóviles, así como en la expectativas reducidas de privacidad que albergan.
Algo similar pasó en California. Por ende, la policía debe investigar y reprimir los crímenes, pero se necesita algo más que el olor para que una requisa sea válida.
Sentencia de la corte sobre requisa corporal, causa probable, olor a marihuana
Rasherd Lewis v. State of Maryland, No. 44, September Term, 2019
CRIMINAL PROCEDURE — ODOR OF MARIJUANA — PROBABLE CAUSE —
SEARCH INCIDENT TO LAWFUL ARREST EXCEPTION —
DECRIMINALIZATION OF LESS THAN TEN GRAMS OF MARIJUANA — The
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and
seizures. For a warrantless arrest to be reasonable, there must be probable cause to believe
that the arrestee committed a felony or was committing a felony or misdemeanor in the
presence of a law enforcement officer. Possession of less than ten grams of marijuana is
neither a felony nor a misdemeanor, but rather a civil offense. In order to lawfully arrest
someone for possession of marijuana, the law enforcement officer must have probable
cause to believe the arrestee possesses a criminal amount of marijuana, i.e., ten grams or
more. A law enforcement officer cannot determine by the odor of marijuana alone the
quantity of marijuana, if any, someone possesses. Therefore, the mere odor of marijuana
does not create probable cause to believe an arrestee possesses a criminal amount of that
Circuit Court for Baltimore City
Case No. 417048006
Argued: January 9, 2020
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS
September Term, 2019
STATE OF MARYLAND
Opinion by Barbera, C.J.
Filed: July 27, 2020
In 2014, the General Assembly decriminalized the possession of less than ten grams
of marijuana, making such possession a civil offense. Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002,
2012 Repl. Vol., 2014 Supp.), § 5-601(c)(2). Since then, this Court has issued three
opinions in three cases addressing the Fourth Amendment implications of such
decriminalization: Robinson v. State, 451 Md. 94 (2017), Norman v. State, 452 Md. 373,
cert. denied, 138 S. Ct. 174 (2017), and Pacheco v. State, 465 Md. 311 (2019). All three
cases involved police officers’ actions in response to their knowledge or suspicion of either
the presence or odor of marijuana. The outcome of each, however, was dictated by the
underlying facts and consideration of the pertinent exception(s) to the Fourth Amendment’s
warrant requirement. See Robinson, 451 Md. at 125–35 (automobile exception); Norman,
452 Md. at 411–13 (stop and frisk exception); Pacheco, 465 Md. at 321–23 (search incident
to arrest and automobile exceptions).
We here consider, and for the reasons that follow hold, that the odor of marijuana,
without more, does not provide law enforcement officers with the requisite probable cause
to arrest and perform a warrantless search of that person incident to the arrest.
Facts and Procedural History
Rasherd Lewis, Petitioner, was convicted in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of
wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun upon the court’s finding him guilty of that
charge based on an agreed statement of facts. That proceeding followed a hearing on
Petitioner’s motion to suppress a handgun, marijuana, cash, and plastic baggies that the
police seized during a search of him at a convenience store in downtown Baltimore City
on February 1, 2017.
The Suppression Hearing
Baltimore City Police Officer David Burch, Jr., was the sole witness to testify at the
suppression hearing, after being accepted as an expert in the identification and packaging
of marijuana. The court, having credited the testimony of Officer Burch, denied
Petitioner’s motion to suppress the items seized during the search. We summarize Officer
Burch’s testimony, viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, here, the
On February 1, 2017, Officer Burch received a tip about a potentially armed
individual in the 400 block of West Saratoga Street in Baltimore City. The tipster was not
a confidential informant but someone whom Officer Burch described as having provided
reliable information to him for “a little less than a month” before the incident at issue in
the present case. Officer Burch conveyed the tip and a description of the individual to
CitiWatch, which monitors Baltimore City’s surveillance cameras. The CitiWatch
Operator reported back that an individual matching the description given by Officer
Burch—later identified as Petitioner—was observed on a surveillance camera entering the
Bag Mart, a convenience store located at 401 West Saratoga Street. Officer Burch was
familiar with that store, as it was in a “high crime area” and known to him as an “open air
drug market” where marijuana was often distributed both inside and in front of the store.
He previously made controlled dangerous substance and handgun arrests at the location.
Officer Burch and five other officers responded to the Bag Mart. The store is small.
As he and the other officers were entering, Officer Burch saw that the store was “fairly
crowded” and smelled of the odor of marijuana. Officer Burch spotted Petitioner move
from a position near the cash register and follow others who were heading toward the exit.
Petitioner had a red bag strapped across his chest, was walking normally, and appeared to
As Petitioner passed “literally right in front of” Officer Burch, the officer smelled
“the odor of marijuana emitting from [Petitioner’s] person.” By that time, the officers had
asked the other patrons to exit the store, leaving only the store’s owner, Petitioner, and the
six police officers.
Officer Burch testified that he reached out and “stopped” Petitioner based on “the
odor of marijuana and the information [he] received to further investigate.”1 Officer Burch
described the stop. While standing “face to face” with Petitioner, he used his right hand to
grab Petitioner’s right hand and his left hand to grab Petitioner’s left shoulder. The other
five officers surrounded Petitioner, with Officer Curtis situated directly behind Petitioner.
Officers Burch and Curtis were wearing department-issued body worn cameras.
Footage from each of the cameras was entered into evidence at the suppression hearing.
Officer Burch testified that he turned on his camera when he came into direct contact with
Petitioner. Officer Burch acknowledged, however, that for about thirty seconds the camera
1 As we shall see, the suppression court found that the tip did not supply sufficient
reliability to support a lawful Terry stop of Petitioner.
was “buffering.” As best we can discern from the record, during that time, Officer Burch
directed Petitioner to raise his hands and Petitioner complied. When Petitioner began to
lower his hands, Officer Curtis, at Officer Burch’s direction, grabbed one then presumably
the other of Petitioner’s arms and handcuffed Petitioner. Officer Curtis’s camera recorded
Officer Burch advising Petitioner to calm down as Officer Curtis handcuffed him.
Once Petitioner was handcuffed, Officer Burch undertook a full search of
Petitioner. He first searched the red bag and found a handgun inside. Then, as he searched
Petitioner’s pockets and waistband, Petitioner advised that he was carrying a small amount
of marijuana. Officer Burch found that quantity of marijuana in a sealed, one-inch plastic
baggie in one of Petitioner’s pockets.
Petitioner, through counsel, advanced two theories to support his motion to suppress
the fruits of the search. He argued first that, pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968),
the police did not possess the requisite reasonable suspicion to “stop” Petitioner at the
outset of the encounter.3
Independent of that argument, Petitioner contended that the full
search of Petitioner and the bag he carried was unlawful because at the time the search was
undertaken, the police lacked probable cause to believe he had committed a felony or was
committing a felony or misdemeanor in their presence.
The search also disclosed a number of empty plastic baggies and $367.
3 Law enforcement officers may conduct “an investigatory stop or detention” when
the officers have “reasonable suspicion that a person has committed or is about to commit
a crime[,]” commonly known as a “Terry stop.” Bailey v. State, 412 Md. 349, 363 (2010)
(quoting Swift v. State, 393 Md. 139, 149–51 (2006)).
Specific to the probable cause argument, Petitioner argued that the search incident
to arrest exception—the justification propounded by the State—did not justify a full-scale
search because no probable cause existed to arrest him. Petitioner noted that someone in
possession of less than ten grams of marijuana may be issued a civil citation but cannot be
arrested, therefore no lawful arrest occurred. The State responded that the odor of
marijuana provided Officer Burch with probable cause to arrest and search Petitioner
because marijuana in any amount is contraband, and although possession of less than ten
grams of marijuana was decriminalized, “it was never the legislature’s intention to
reclassify marijuana as not being contraband.”
The suppression court determined that the tip that caused Officer Burch and his five
fellow officers to respond to the Bag Mart lacked sufficient reliability to justify the initial
stop of Petitioner. In making that determination, the court quoted Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S.
266, 272 (2000), which states that reasonable suspicion “requires that a tip be reliable in
its assertion of illegality, not just in its tendency to identify a determinate person.” Given
the lack of sufficient indicia of reliability, the court granted Petitioner’s motion to suppress
evidence of the tip.
The suppression court credited Officer Burch’s testimony that he smelled the odor
of marijuana on Petitioner’s breath and body as soon as he and Petitioner were “face to
face.” Based on that finding, the court ruled that the odor of marijuana gave police probable
cause to arrest Petitioner and, incident to such arrest, conduct a full search of his person.
In making that ruling, the court relied on Robinson v. State, 451 Md. 94 (2017), which we
noted at the outset of this opinion involved the automobile exception, not the search
incident to arrest exception, to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
Extrapolating upon the reasoning of Robinson, the suppression court concluded:
“[I]t would appear that the odor of marijuana emanating from a person provides probable
cause to believe that that person contains evidence of a crime[; consequently,] a police
officer may search that person under such circumstances.” Based on that ruling, the court
denied the defense’s motion to suppress the handgun found during the search of Petitioner.4
Subsequent Procedural History
Petitioner pleaded not guilty on an agreed statement of facts to the charge of
wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun. After the State’s presentation of the agreedupon facts, the circuit court found Petitioner guilty of the handgun charge and sentenced
him to three years’ incarceration with all but ninety days suspended and three years’
On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, the three-judge panel, in a fractured
opinion, affirmed the decision of the circuit court. Lewis v. State, 237 Md. App. 661
(2018). Petitioner advanced two theories supporting the claim that he was unlawfully
seized and subjected to a search incident to arrest. Only one of those contentions was raised
and argued at the suppression hearing and therefore was properly before the Court of
4 The court did not suppress the non-criminal amount of marijuana found during the
search of Petitioner.
Special Appeals and is properly before us now. The other argument, raised for the first
time on appeal, was waived by omission at the suppression hearing.
A Contention Unpreserved for Appellate Review
Petitioner’s first of two contentions on appeal to the Court of Special Appeals was
that the police officers had no lawful basis to seize him at the outset of the encounter in the
Bag Mart; consequently, the handgun found during the search following that unlawful
seizure should have been suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. See Cox v. State, 421
Md. 630, 651 (2011) (“[T]he fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine excludes direct and
indirect evidence that is a product of police conduct in violation of the Fourth
Amendment.”) (quoting Myers v. State, 395 Md. 261, 291 (2006)). Petitioner advances the
same contention in the second question he presents to us.
The Court of Special Appeals explained why this contention was not preserved for
A review of the body-camera footage does not reflect where Officer
Burch was when Officer Curtis initially touched appellant’s arm. It does
reflect, however, that within one second or less, Officer Burch was in front
of appellant telling him to put his hands up. Although appellant hinges his
argument on appeal on this sequence of events during a fast moving situation,
he never raised this argument below or suggested that the timing of Officer
Curtis’ actions had any bearing at all on the suppression issue. And the
circuit court did not address the significance or timing of Officer Curtis’
action in grabbing appellant because the issue was not raised at the
suppression hearing. Under these circumstances, the issue is not preserved
for this Court’s review. See Maryland Rule 8-131(a) (“Ordinarily, the
appellate court will not decide any other issues unless it plainly appears by
the record to have been raised in or decided by the trial court.”); Ray v. State,
435 Md. 1, 19, 76 A.3d 1143 (2013) (where a defendant advances one theory
of suppression pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-252, but fails to argue an
additional theory that it later asserts on appeal, the defendant has “waived the
right to have that claim litigated on direct appeal.”). Accordingly, we will
not address this contention.
Lewis, 237 Md. App. at 675 (footnotes omitted).
We agree with the Court of Special Appeals that Petitioner failed to preserve his
contention that Officer Curtis had no lawful basis to seize Petitioner before Officer Burch
smelled marijuana on his person, rendering the handgun found during the subsequent
search inadmissible as the poisonous fruit of the unlawful seizure. There is, moreover, no
need to exercise our discretion to consider that unpreserved contention, as Petitioner asks
us to do,
5 because Petitioner ultimately prevails on the first question he presents. We
address that argument below.
Probable Cause to Conduct a Full-Scale Search of Petitioner?
Petitioner argues that the police officers lacked probable cause to conduct a
warrantless search of him based solely on Officer Burch’s having smelled the odor of
marijuana emanating from either or both Petitioner’s breath or body. A majority of the
Court of Special Appeals’ three-judge panel agreed with the circuit court’s ruling at the
5 The questions as presented by Petitioner are:
1) Did the Court of Special Appeals err in concluding that the odor of
marijuana on a person, without more, constitutes probable cause to arrest?
2) When a majority of a Court of Special Appeals panel concludes that its
decision “will result in injustice,” should the court exercise its discretion
under Maryland Rule 8-131 and address a constitutional question, which the
parties fully briefed in the absence of a preservation challenge, about whether
incontrovertible body-camera evidence demonstrates the “seizure” of a
person without probable cause?
suppression hearing that Robinson stands for the proposition that, because marijuana
remains contraband, the odor of marijuana provides law enforcement officers with
probable cause to arrest a person, and therefore a search incident thereto is reasonable.
Lewis, 237 Md. App. at 683 (holding “that the odor of marijuana, if localized to a particular
person, provides probable cause to arrest that person for the crime of possession of
marijuana.”); id. at 690 (Arthur, J., concurring) (“Therefore, if ‘the odor of marijuana
remains evidence of a crime’ in the context of a vehicle search, as Robinson said . . . , it
presumably ‘remains evidence of a crime’ in the context of a warrantless arrest.”).
Conversely, the dissenting opinion explained that “Robinson fairly applies the
general principle that probable cause can arise from indicia of a crime or contraband, and
holds that the odor of marijuana coming out of a car indicates that contraband or criminal
activity are present in the car.” Id. at 697 (Nazarian, J., dissenting) (emphasis in original).
Because, however, there are plausible innocuous explanations for why someone may smell
of marijuana that do not involve a vehicle, the dissent asserted that Robinson cannot be
read as “stand[ing] for the proposition that an odor of marijuana emanating from a person
indicates that contraband is present or that a crime has been committed.” Id. (emphasis in
For the reasons that follow, we agree with Petitioner that Robinson does not control
the outcome of this case. Instead, it is Pacheco, decided after the Court of Special Appeals
issued its opinion in the case at bar, that dictates the outcome here. We hold that more than
the odor of marijuana is required for probable cause to arrest a person and conduct a search
incident thereto. We therefore further hold that Petitioner was entitled to suppression of
the handgun and other items seized during the search because Officer Burch, at the time he
undertook the search of Petitioner that produced the seized items, did not have probable
cause to believe that Petitioner had committed a felony or was committing a felony or
Standard of Review
When reviewing a circuit court’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence, we
interpret the record in the light most favorable to the prevailing party and accept the factual
findings unless they are clearly erroneous. Norman, 452 Md. at 386. We review de novo
the “court’s application of the law to its findings of fact.” Id. “When a party raises a
constitutional challenge to a search or seizure, this Court renders an ‘independent
constitutional evaluation by reviewing the relevant law and applying it to the unique facts
and circumstances of the case.’” Pacheco, 465 Md. at 319 (quoting Grant v. State, 449
Md. 1, 15 (2016)).
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees “[t]he right of
the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable
searches and seizures,” and provides that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable
cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be
searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” U.S. CONST. amend. IV; see also MD.
DECL. OF RIGHTS art. 26 (“That all warrants, without oath or affirmation, to search
suspected places, or to seize any person or property, are grievous and oppressive”). The
touchstone of whether a warrantless search or seizure withstands Fourth Amendment
scrutiny is reasonableness. See Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435, 447 (2013) (“[T]he
ultimate measure of the constitutionality of a governmental search is ‘reasonableness.’”)
(citation omitted); Pacheco, 465 Md. at 320 (“It is well settled that the Fourth Amendment
. . . prohibits ‘unreasonable’ searches and seizures.”).
“What is reasonable depends upon all of the circumstances surrounding the search
or seizure and the nature of the search or seizure itself.” United States v. Montoya de
Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 537 (1985) (citation omitted). “[S]ubject only to a few
specifically established and well-delineated exceptions, a warrantless search or seizure that
infringes upon the protected interests of an individual is presumptively unreasonable.”
Grant, 449 Md. at 16–17 (footnote omitted); see also Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347,
357 (1967). “Whether a particular warrantless action on the part of the police is reasonable
under the Fourth Amendment depends on a balance between the public interest and the
individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers.”
Pacheco, 465 Md. at 321 (quoting Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 109 (1977)
(internal quotations omitted)).
Pacheco and the Odor of Marijuana
The relevant exception to the warrant requirement in the present case is the search
incident to arrest exception set forth in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969). This
Court recently discussed that exception as well as the automobile exception announced in
Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), in Pacheco.
In Pacheco, two police officers noticed a “suspicious vehicle” occupied by Michael
Pacheco parked behind a laundromat. 465 Md. at 317. The officers approached the vehicle
and, as they drew near, they smelled the odor of marijuana and observed a marijuana
cigarette in the center console. Id. at 318. One of the officers requested that Mr. Pacheco
give him the “joint,” which the officer later testified he immediately knew weighed less
than ten grams. Mr. Pacheco was ordered out of the vehicle. The officers searched him
and recovered cocaine from Mr. Pacheco’s pocket. They then searched the vehicle and
found marijuana stems and rolling papers. Mr. Pacheco was given a civil citation for
possession of less than ten grams of marijuana and charged with possession of cocaine with
intent to distribute. Id.
Mr. Pacheco filed a motion to suppress the cocaine. Id. He argued that the police
officers lacked probable cause to conduct the warrantless search of both his person and his
vehicle because there was no reason to suspect he possessed ten grams or more of
marijuana. The State responded that the odor of marijuana provided the officers with
probable cause to search both Mr. Pacheco and the vehicle. Id. The circuit court agreed
with the State despite Mr. Pacheco’s not having possessed a criminal amount of marijuana;
the Court of Special Appeals affirmed. Id. at 319. On further appeal, this Court reversed
and held that the search of Mr. Pacheco’s person was unreasonable. Id. at 333.
The circumstances in Pacheco gave rise to two exceptions to the warrant
requirement, the automobile exception and the search incident to arrest exception. Under
the automobile exception, “Carroll [v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925),] and its progeny
authorize the warrantless search of a vehicle if, at the time of the search, the police have
developed ‘probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a
crime.’” Id. at 321 (quoting State v. Johnson, 458 Md. 519, 533 (2018)). The justifications
for the automobile exception are grounded in the mobility of automobiles as well as the
reduced expectations of privacy harbored therein.
Id. at 321–22 (citing California v.
Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 391 (1985)). Given those justifications, the scope of an automobile
search cannot extend beyond the automobile itself or else “the core Fourth Amendment
protection afforded to” places where privacy expectations are heightened would be
undervalued and the exception would be “untether[ed] . . . from the justifications
underlying it.” Id. at 322 (quoting Collins v. Virginia, — U.S. — , 138 S. Ct. 1663, 1671
(2018) (internal quotations omitted)).
The prerequisite to a lawful search of a person incident to arrest is that the police
have probable cause to believe the person subject to arrest has committed a felony or is
6 Although typically described as the automobile exception to the Fourth
Amendment warrant requirement, the Carroll exception also applies to searches of other
vehicles. California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 393 n.2 (1985) (“With few exceptions, the
courts have not hesitated to apply the vehicle exception to vehicles other than
committing a felony or misdemeanor in the presence of the police. Pacheco, 465 Md. at
323 (citing Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 369–70 (2003)). “Because the search is
premised on probable cause to make the arrest, the first question to be considered whenever
such a search has been conducted is whether the police had the requisite probable cause
before conducting the search.” Id. (citing Donaldson v. State, 416 Md. 467, 481 (2010)).
The justifications underpinning the search incident to arrest exception include the
confiscation of weapons potentially used to resist arrest, escape custody, or endanger police
officers’ safety, and the seizure of evidence “to prevent its concealment or destruction.”
Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373, 383, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2483 (2014) (internal quotation
omitted); Chimel, 395 U.S. at 762–63 (“When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the
arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons . . . [and]
any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction.”).
Probable Cause Requirements for the Automobile Exception and the Search Incident to
Probable cause is the prerequisite to both a search under the automobile exception
and the search incident to arrest exception.
[T]he probable-cause standard is a practical, nontechnical conception that
deals with the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which
reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act. . . . [P]robable cause
is a fluid concept—turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular
factual contexts—not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal
The probable-cause standard is incapable of precise definition or
quantification into percentages because it deals with probabilities and
depends on the totality of the circumstances.
Pringle, 540 U.S. at 370–71 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
When analyzing whether probable cause for a warrantless search or seizure existed
in a given scenario, we must look to “[t]he authorization for and permitted scope of the
search at issue” in relation “to the justification(s) for it.” Pacheco, 465 Md. at 324. In
Pacheco, it was at the “justification(s)” stage of the analysis that we noted that probable
cause for the automobile exception and the search incident to arrest exception diverge.
“Although the probable cause determination for each of these exceptions requires the same
‘quantum of evidence,’ ‘[e]ach requires a showing of probabilities as to somewhat different
facts and circumstances.’” Id. at 324–25 (quoting 2 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure:
A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment § 3.1(b), at 7 (5th ed. 2012)); see also State v.
Funkhouser, 140 Md. App. 696, 721 (2001) (explaining that there is “no distinction made
between the predicate for an automobile search and the predicate for a lawful arrest.
Although the closely related predicates may sometimes differ slightly in terms of
qualitative content or substance, they do not differ quantitatively in terms of degree of their
probability.”). As such, probable cause may exist to search a vehicle under the automobile
exception but not to arrest a person—and therefore trigger the search incident to arrest
exception—and vice versa.
“When determining whether probable cause exists for purposes of the automobile
exception, courts ask whether ‘there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains
contraband or evidence of a crime.’” Pacheco, 465 Md. at 325 (quoting Johnson, 458 Md.
at 533). When determining whether the police had probable cause to arrest and conduct a
search incident to the arrest, courts look to the likelihood of the guilt of the arrestee and
whether probable cause existed to believe that a felony was committed or a felony or
misdemeanor was being committed in the presence of law enforcement. Id. “The
distinction between the two exceptions is at least in part due to the diminished expectation
of privacy that justifies the automobile exception . . . as compared to the unique,
significantly heightened constitutional protections afforded a person to be secure in his or
her body.” Id. at 325–26 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
In Pacheco, we upheld the search of the vehicle under the automobile exception.
This Court previously held in Robinson that the odor of marijuana provides police officers
with probable cause to search a vehicle because marijuana in any quantity remains
contraband. Given that jurisprudence, Mr. Pacheco did not contest the vehicle search based
on the odor of marijuana and presence of a marijuana cigarette in the vehicle. Id. at 330.
Relevant to the case at bar, we further held in Pacheco that the police did not have
probable cause to arrest Mr. Pacheco and search his person. Id. “For such a search to have
been reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the officers must have possessed, before
the search, probable cause to believe that Mr. Pacheco was committing a felony or a
misdemeanor in their presence.” Id. We determined that neither the odor of marijuana nor
the presence of a marijuana cigarette in the vehicle indicated to the police officers that Mr.
Pacheco possessed a criminal amount of marijuana. Id. at 332–33. The totality of the
circumstances leading up to Mr. Pacheco’s arrest did not create probable cause to believe
“he was committing, had committed, or was about to commit a crime.” Id. at 333. It
followed that the State did not meet its burden of showing “why this minimal amount of
marijuana [in the marijuana cigarette], which is not a misdemeanor, but rather a civil
offense, gave rise to a fair probability that Mr. Pacheco possessed a criminal amount of
marijuana on his person.” Id.
Pacheco guides us in deciding that police officers must have probable cause to
believe a person possesses a criminal amount of marijuana in order to arrest that person
and conduct a search incident thereto. Although marijuana in any quantity is considered
contraband, Robinson, 451 Md. at 99, the search incident to arrest exception can be invoked
only upon the occurrence of a felony or attempt of a felony or misdemeanor; a civil
infraction is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor. The odor of marijuana alone is not
indicative of the quantity (if any) of marijuana in someone’s possession, a fact to which
Officer Burch testified.
It is certainly understandable that the Court of Special Appeals considered and
followed, in the present case, the reasoning and holding of this Court in Robinson, as
Pacheco had not yet been decided. Equally understandable is Judge Arthur’s concern
about the risks that attend the Court of Special Appeals’ holding in the present case. Judge
Arthur addressed those risks in his concurring opinion:
[I]f the mere odor of burnt marijuana on a citizen’s breath gives the police
probable cause to make an arrest, it would seem to follow that the odor of
marijuana smoke on a person’s clothes or hair would give probable cause as
well. If so, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which police officers
would have probable cause to arrest and search someone whose only
exposure to marijuana is from second-hand smoke—e.g., someone who was
standing inside a bus enclosure in the rain while others smoked marijuana;
someone whose family members or housemates smoke marijuana; someone
who borrowed a piece of clothing or outerwear from an acquaintance who
smokes marijuana; someone who just came from a concert at which members
of the audience were smoking marijuana; etc. In fact, the officers would have
probable cause to arrest and search someone who got off a bus or subway
train in Maryland after smoking marijuana in the District of Columbia, where
the private use and possession of up to two ounces has been legalized (and
not merely decriminalized). D.C. Stat. Ann. § 48–904.01(a)(1) (West 2018).
I would have thought that the reform of Maryland’s marijuana laws was
intended to reduce rather than facilitate intrusive searches in circumstances
such as these.
Lewis, 237 Md. App. at 691 (Arthur, J., concurring). Judge Nazarian expressed similar
concerns in his dissenting opinion. Id. at 703 (Nazarian, J., dissenting) (cautioning that
“[t]here is no way to challenge or verify what the officer smelled, no way to test whether a
person actually smelled of marijuana, . . . and no way to control for the fully legal and
otherwise non-criminal or second-hand ways someone could come to smell like
Robinson and Possession of Contraband
The State seizes on Robinson to argue that, because marijuana remains contraband
and police officers cannot estimate whether a person possesses a criminal quantity of
marijuana based on odor, the odor of marijuana creates probable cause to arrest someone
in public without a warrant. In Robinson, we held that the odor of marijuana emanating
In our sister state of New York, trial judges have been similarly critical about
whether the mere odor of marijuana may provide probable cause for law enforcement
officers to seize an individual. See e.g., People v. Suncar, 116 N.Y.S.3d 872, 882 (N.Y.
Sup. Ct. 2019) (“If possession of marijuana in small quantities is no longer a crime then
the mere odor of unburnt marihuana could not provide probable cause for the arrest of the
occupants of a vehicle that has not committed a moving violation.”); People v. Brukner, 25
N.Y.S.3d 559, 571 (N.Y. City Ct. 2015), aff’d, appeal dismissed, 43 N.Y.S.3d 851 (N.Y.
Co. Ct. 2016) (“An odor of stale or burnt marihuana on clothing, without more, is equally
susceptible to the innocent non-criminal explanation that the Defendant smoked marihuana
previously in private, and not in public.”).
from an automobile gives rise to probable cause to search that automobile. 451 Md. at 99.
We explained that:
[P]ossession of ten grams or more of marijuana, crimes involving the
distribution of marijuana, and driving under the influence of a controlled
dangerous substance have not been decriminalized in Maryland, and, thus,
the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle provides probable cause to
believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime, and a law enforcement
officer may search the vehicle under such circumstances.
Id. at 134.
Robinson—indeed, the Carroll doctrine altogether—is inapplicable outside of the
vehicle search context. See Lewis, 237 Md. App. at 695 (Nazarian, J., dissenting)
(explaining that “the broad probable cause language in Robinson arose in the context of
vehicle searches, and flows from the vehicle search doctrine that doesn’t apply identically
to individuals.”); see also Norman v. State, 452 Md. 373, 411 (noting “the only issue in
Robinson was whether an odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle provides probable
cause to search the vehicle. No frisks or searches of persons were at issue in Robinson”).
As explained above, one of the justifications for the automobile exception is the diminished
expectation of privacy one enjoys in his or her vehicle. In juxtaposition, there is a
In Norman, we analyzed the impact of decriminalization on a law enforcement
officer’s authority to frisk vehicle occupants upon detecting the odor of marijuana
emanating from the vehicle. 452 Md. at 378. We held that a law enforcement officer has
reasonable suspicion to frisk one of multiple occupants of a vehicle when that vehicle is
emanating an odor of marijuana and the totality of the circumstances indicates that the
occupant in question is armed and dangerous. Id. at 379. We cautioned, though, that the
“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.” Id. at 412.
heightened expectation of privacy enjoyed in one’s person. Arresting and searching a
person, without a warrant and based exclusively on the odor of marijuana on that person’s
body or breath, is unreasonable and does violence to the fundamental privacy expectation
in one’s body; the same concerns do not attend the search of a vehicle. See Pacheco, 465
Md. at 326 (remarking that probable cause “to believe that a person is carrying evidence
does not justify a warrantless search of a person . . . . Only places or things enjoying a
lesser expectation of privacy . . . are vulnerable to probable-cause-based warrantless
searches for the purpose of discovering and seizing evidence of a crime.”) (quoting
Funkhouser, 140 Md. App. at 724).
The State asserts that by requiring more than the odor of marijuana for probable
cause to arrest, but not for probable cause to search a vehicle, we would be creating a
“probable cause plus” rule for the search incident to arrest exception. Not so.
There is no denying that both the automobile exception and the search incident to
arrest exception must satisfy the probable cause standard. The Court has made clear,
[t]he same facts and circumstances that justify a search of an automobile do
not necessarily justify an arrest and search incident thereto. This is based on
the heightened expectation of privacy one enjoys in his or her person as
compared to the diminished expectation of privacy one has in an automobile.
The arrest and search of Mr. Pacheco was unreasonable because nothing in
the record suggests that possession of a joint and the odor of burnt marijuana
gave the police probable cause to believe he was in possession of a criminal
amount of that substance.
Pacheco, 465 Md. at 333–34.
The same holds true in the present case. The search of Petitioner and the red bag
strapped across his chest was based solely on the odor of marijuana emanating from his
person. Under Pacheco, that information fell short of supplying the requisite probable
cause to conduct that search. Id.
For such a search to be supported by probable cause, the police must possess
information indicating possession of a criminal amount of marijuana. There is no
indication in the record suggesting that Petitioner was in possession of that amount of
marijuana; all the record does reflect is that Petitioner smelled of marijuana. Consistent
with our decision in Pacheco, we hold here that the mere odor of marijuana emanating
from a person, without more, does not provide the police with probable cause to support
an arrest and a full-scale search of the arrestee incident thereto.
The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures
prohibits law enforcement officers from arresting and searching a person without a warrant
based solely upon the odor of marijuana on or about that person. Probable cause to conduct
a lawful arrest requires that the arrestee committed a felony or was committing a felony or
misdemeanor in a law enforcement officer’s presence. Possession of less than ten grams
of marijuana is a civil offense, not a felony or a misdemeanor, therefore law enforcement
officers need probable cause to believe the arrestee is in possession of a criminal amount
of marijuana to conduct a lawful arrest. The odor of marijuana alone does not indicate the
quantity, if any, of marijuana in someone’s possession.
JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF SPECIAL
APPEALS REVERSED. CASE REMANDED
TO THAT COURT WITH INSTRUCTIONS
TO REVERSE THE JUDGMENT OF THE
CIRCUIT COURT FOR BALTIMORE CITY
AND REMAND TO THAT COURT WITH
INSTRUCTIONS TO GRANT THE
MOTION TO SUPPRESS. COSTS TO BE
PAID BY THE STATE.