The federal court for the Northern District of Illinois recently held that the smell of marijuana does not justify a warrantless search of someone's home. The case involved a woman who was wanted for questioning by the police. They went to her house but her husband would not let them in without a warrant. But the police smelled marijuana so they barged in without a warrant and arrested the man and his wife for resisting arrest and possession of marijuana.
The couple filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the two arresting officers alleging that they falsely arrested and beat the couple in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The police officers moved for summary judgment under the theory that the odor of marijuana created exigent circumstances that allowed them to proceed without a warrant.
The court applied an objective test that asks whether a reasonable police officer in the defendants' position would have believed that an emergency existed which justified entering the residence without getting a warrant. The court explained that exigent circumstances only arise in true emergencies where there is a "compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant."
In this case, all the officers had was the odor of marijuana. The court acknowledged that possession of marijuana is a crime in Illinois, but stated that the mere smell of marijuana did not suggest a significant crime was occurring. The court found that the smell of burnt marijuana provides probable cause that a crime had been committed, but is insufficient to rise to the emergency level justify a warrantless entry into somebody's house. The court found that possession of marijuana was a misdemeanor and that the exigent circumstances doctrine should be restricted to cases involving "serious crimes."
So, the police officers' motion for summary judgment was denied. The case will proceed to trial on the false arrest claims, or they'll settle. Two pot-smoking, cop-fighting ne'er-do-wells do not exactly make the most sympathetic plaintiffs ever, but it's definitely an interesting case. I wonder how much it's worth? Any guesses?