Search of a Van is invalid despite observing marijuana

A van pulled over because of an unilluminated headlight could not be entered and searched by the police based on marijuana the officers saw inside the van, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled.

After an officer saw “about a [one]-ounce bag” of marijuana protruding from under a rumpled T-shirt lying on the floor between the vehicle’s two front seats, officers ordered the defendant out of the vehicle, handcuffed him and conducted a search of the minivan. Lifting the T-shirt, an officer found, in addition to the bag previously seen, another one-ounce bag of marijuana and a third, smaller bag of marijuana.

“Because the [2008] ballot initiative decriminalized ‘possession of one ounce or less’ of marijuana, G.L.c. 94C, §32L, the officer saw evidence of a civil infraction, not a criminal offense,” Justice Barbara A. Lenk wrote for a unanimous court.

“The officers observed a noncriminal quantity of marijuana from a lawful vantage point, and might well have informed the defendant that the possession of that marijuana constituted a civil offense, subjecting the possessor to a fine, and that the marijuana was subject to forfeiture,” Lenk stated, noting that the officers could have requested that the defendant turn the marijuana over to them and could also have issued a civil citation.

“Instead, they entered the vehicle and conducted a search that went beyond even what would be necessary to seize the bag that they had seen,” she pointed out. “Because they lacked probable cause to believe that the van contained evidence of a crime, we conclude that their entry into the minivan was impermissible.”

The 23-page decision is Commonwealth v. Sheridan