Chesapeake (VA) police officer, Barrett Ring, claims that he can come up behind cars, open his vent and smell burnt marijuana coming from the car in front of him.
Testimony from preliminary hearing transcript:
Public defender Atty Matt Taylor: "Officer Ring, your testimony was that you're driving down Battlefield Blvd., and you smelled marijuana in the area?"
Off. Ring: "Yes sir, We drive our patrol vehicle with the vents on, pulling air from the outside in, directly into our faces. Commonly, we'll be behind vehicles that somebody in the vehicle's smoking marijuana, and we can smell it clear as day. We typically wait until there's no other vehicles in the area so that we can centralize it to whatever vehicle has it at the time."
You can read more about that case here.
If you think that's an isolated incident, you'd be wrong. Police officers in Sarasota, Florida apparently made it into a business model, claiming to smell a closed baggie of unburnt marijuana tucked in an individual's sock, while the police cruiser passed the offender's car going the other way at 35 mph! You don't have to be a defense lawyer to detect the smell of BS in that one! And the officers testified that their superiors were aware of and condoned the practice.
The status of the law is that if police officers catch the smell of marijuana, they have probable cause to search you or your car. If you happen to be a law abiding citizen and not a reefer-smoking criminal (not you, Oregon and Colorado) then you might be saying, "Well, the marijuana was there anyway, so don't smoke weed and you won't have to worry about it." Of course, you'd be assuming that all police are honest and don't just act on hunches or manufacture the "odor" of pot as a means of getting to what they just know is already there.
Try this on one for size, it's from here in Texas (we do it bigger here). Two women pulled over for tossing a cigarette out the car window. DPS trooper insists he smells pot so he can search the car. No marijuana. So he gets another female trooper to body search the women, inside bras, under breasts, and yes, in both body cavities, right there on the side of the highway. Don't believe it? It's on video. And here's the real live lawsuit. Bet it's real to those troopers now.
So that's the trouble. You could be very unlucky driving around in your car illegally smoking weed and get caught. Or, you could just be driving around in your car and have your car torn apart, get searched, have whatever cash you have confiscated, and get humiliated, just because an officer is Positive he'll find something. Like if you're not white, or white with tattoos, or if it's really late, or if you have a Phish sticker on your bumper, or act nervous, or are "not from around here." I personally know of a case where an officer took $1500 from a guy who looked like a potsmoker but wasn't doing anything more than driving while dreadlocked. He was told it would be at the police station if he wanted to try and get it back. When his lawyer contacted a supervisor, they said go ahead and send him down to pick it up. His lawyer demanded a personal return to his office, which happened, but by a different cop. No harm no foul, right. Right, unless it happens to be you. And that's why it's a problem. For everybody.