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COA: Lingering odor of burnt marijuana does not justify warrantless search

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No possibility of danger or smell of marijuana was evident, and that was enough to convince the Indiana Court of Appeals to suppress evidence found during a police officer’s search of a motorist’s backpack.  

The COA reversed the trial court’s denial of Adam Miller’s motion to suppress in Adam Miller v. State of Indiana, 53A-05-1211-CR-560. A majority of the court held the trial court erred, but in his dissent, Judge Cale Bradford countered there was probable cause to search Miller’s backpack.

Miller was pulled over by Bloomington police officer Jordan Hasler for driving with an expired license plate sticker. When Hasler decided to tow the car because of its expired sticker, Miller said he needed to retrieve his cell phone and backpack from inside the car. The officer got the backpack and as he searched it for weapons, found marijuana and a smoking device that emitted burnt marijuana odor.

Miller was arrested and charged with possession of paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor.

In his motion to suppress the evidence, Miller alleged, in part, violations of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. When the trial court denied Miller’s motion, the defendant filed a motion to correct error and a motion to certify the trial court’s order for interlocutory appeal.

 Miller appealed, arguing the officer’s warrantless search of the backpack was not based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or reasonable safety concerns.

The Court of Appeals agreed. It noted when a search is conducted without a warrant, the state has the burden of proving that an exception to the warrant requirement existed. In this instance, the officer could not point to articulable facts supporting either a suspicion of criminal activity or a concern over the possibility of harm.

Subsequently, the COA ruled that the search of Miller’s backpack was impermissible under the Fourth Amendment.

The court of appeals rejected the trial court’s reasoning that the search falls within the automobile exception. It found there is no evidence that the odor of marijuana emanated from the vehicle and Hasler did not testify that the vehicle smelled of marijuana.

In his dissent, Bradford maintained the search was supported by probable cause that contraband might be found in the impounded car.

Bradford stated that even though Hasler did not indicate he detected the odor of burnt marijuana coming from Miller’s vehicle, Hasler did detect the odor of burnt marijuana on Miller and Miller’s actions during the traffic stop were suspicious and raised a reasonable inference that his vehicle contained contraband.

 

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