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Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules Police Can’t Stop Drivers for Smelling Pot

Massachusetts’ highest court on Tuesday ruled that police can’t stop motorists solely because they suspect they are in possession of marijuana.

The ruling was not unanimous, with justices Robert Cordy and Francis Spina writing a dissenting opinion. The justices noted that the law approved by voters in 2008 had three policy goals: reducing the direct and collateral consequences of possessing small amounts of marijuana; focusing law enforcement’s attention to serious crime; and saving taxpayer resources previously devoted to targeting the simple possession of marijuana.

The majority of the court, however, said the smell of marijuana didn’t give police enough cause to pull over the car, pointing to a 2008 ballot question approved by voters that decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.  Justice Margot Botsford wrote that permitting such stops does not serve the objectives of the law change and doesn’t refocus police efforts on pursuing more serious crimes.

“Permitting police to stop a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion that an occupant possesses marijuana does not serve these objectives,” the majority said in their ruling.

The court also noted that while vehicle stops to investigate civil marijuana infractions serve a general law enforcement purpose, “there is no obvious and direct link between enforcement of the civil penalty for marijuana possession and maintaining highway safety.”  The ruling does not bar officers from issuing a citation for marijuana possession if they stop a driver for a traffic violation.

Massachusetts State Police spokesman David Procopio said that troopers are not primarily concerned about motorists possessing an ounce or less of the drug and usually make observations of marijuana use after stopping a vehicle for other reasons.

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