Continuing a line of holdings during the past decade, the Indiana Court of Appeals has clearly stated that the odor of raw marijuana can be enough for police to search someone during a valid traffic stop.
The state’s intermediate appellate court issued a ruling Friday in Charles Meek v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-1009-CR-964, affirming a Marion Superior commissioner’s denial of a man’s motion to suppress evidence discovered during a warrantless pat-down search following a valid Terry stop of his vehicle.
This case is similar to the one a different three-judge panel decided Thursday in Shon L. Edmond v. State of Indiana, No. 49A04-1012-CR-756, when analyzing an issue of first impression on whether the smell of burnt marijuana constitutes probable cause for police to search someone. That panel determined the search didn’t violate a person’s rights, and similar logic is now being applied here.
In November 2009, an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer saw Eric Moore suspiciously walking away from his disabled vehicle that appeared to have been in a collision. Another car, driven by Charles Meek, pulled up and picked up Moore, and then drove off. The officer followed based on the belief that Moore and Meek were leaving the scene of an accident. He initiated a traffic stop because the windows were darkly tinted in violation of state law and he couldn’t see inside. When the driver rolled the window down, the officer saw three people inside – including a young child – and smelled what he believed to be raw marijuana coming from inside. Another officer arrived on the scene as backup and also smelled raw marijuana.
The original officer on the scene asked if anyone had weapons or contraband and were told no, but after the officer read them their Miranda rights, Meek told police he had a weapon. Officers conducted a pat-down search of both men and found $1,900 in cash and a legally permitted gun in Meek’s pants, but no sign of marijuana. When police asked about the raw marijuana smell from inside, Meek said he’d been smoking marijuana earlier – that led to a more thorough pat-down search because the officers had smelled raw, not burnt marijuana. The second search resulted in a baggie containing marijuana falling from Meek’s pant leg, as well as some white pills suspected to be Vicodin and Hydrocodone.
That led the state to charge Meek with one count of class D felony possession of a controlled substance, and he moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search on grounds that officers conducted the pat-down without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The trial court denied that motion and certified the issue for interlocutory appeal.
Specifically, Meek isn’t challenging the traffic-stop validity or the vehicle search. Rather, he contended that the odor of raw marijuana emanating from inside his vehicle didn’t extend probable cause for police to search him personally as they did. That was a violation of his rights under Article I, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution, he claimed.
The Court of Appeals disagreed. Four years ago in Marcum v. State, 843 N.E.2d 546 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006), the judges upheld a police search based on the smell of raw marijuana, and they specifically declined an invitation to hold that police officers’ detection of the odor of marijuana cannot serve as probable cause for a search unless that odor is independently confirmed by a police dog.
Taking that holding along with other precedent such as Lark v. State, 759 N.E.2d 275 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), the appellate court in Meek’s case looked at the entirety of the situation police faced at the time. The judges cited that Meek originally lied about having a weapon or contraband, his later admission to possessing a weapon, the smell of raw marijuana from the vehicle, and his statement that he’d smoked earlier that day.
“All of those facts taken together, along with the officer’s failure to find the source of the odor of marijuana in the vehicle, and the absence of Moore’s person, supported the subsequent and more thorough pat-down search of Meek’s person that ultimately led to the discovery of the contraband. We find no violation here as the search was reasonable in light of the totality of the circumstances.”