Marijuana Smell no Longer Grounds for Vehicle Search in MN

Paul Ellertson, contributor

Legal Marijuana Now Party rally at Minnesota State Capitol on April 29 by Dan Vacek sourced from Creative Commons

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that police cannot conduct a vehicle search solely on the basis of marijuana odor. According to the Minnesota Reformer, the ruling came from a case back in 2021 where Adam Torgerson was pulled over in Litchfield, Minnesota for reportedly having too many auxiliary lights on his car. During this stop, Litchfield officers claimed to have smelled marijuana coming from the car. Torgerson denied this, but officers then ordered Torgerson, his wife and young child out of the car to conduct a vehicle search. A small amount of methamphetamine and paraphernalia was found in the search, however Torgerson was driving safely and there was no visual evidence of crimes being committed. The officer’s only probable cause was based on odor.

In 2021, Minnesota state law had decriminalized small amounts of both recreational and medical marijuana, deeming the odor evidence brought against Torgerson inadmissible by the district court. According to the Minnesota Reformer, the state then brought this appeal on Torgerson’s case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, after being rejected by the court of appeals. On Sept. 13, the court ruled in favor of the lower courts, the smell of marijuana would no longer be reasonable grounds for vehicle searches. 

According to the Washington Post, law enforcement worry that prohibiting the search of a vehicle on the basis of odor will make it harder for them to detect crime being committed. The probable cause of smell has been used for decades by law enforcement to conduct searches when the possession and smoking of marijuana was illegal. However, since marijuana has been legalized in 21 states, officers can no longer justify a criminal act by smell alone. According to the Washington Post, law enforcement can have reasonable suspicion when someone is driving erratically and is potentially under the influence as grounds for a traffic stop and sobriety test to be conducted.
According to the Minnesota Reformer, this ruling is seen as a victory for civil libertarians and racial justice advocates as the smell of marijuana has long been used to conduct unlawful vehicle searches, resulting in high arrest rates for BIPOC individuals. According to the ACLU, Black and white people have the same rate of use of marijuana, however Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to get arrested for marijuana use and possession. States where marijuana is legal or has been decriminalized have experienced lower arrest rates for related drug charges, but one trend remains the same: Black people are still significantly more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. The ACLU argued that police reform must be a part of the marijuana legalization process.