The New Jersey Supreme Court said In a unanimous ruling that police officers improperly used the smell of marijuana to search a man’s car, a decision that allows the man to withdraw his guilty plea to a weapons offense. The ruling comes more than two years after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that bars police from using the odor of cannabis as probable cause to search someone or their car. That law, which was irrelevant to the case at hand because of the timing, means cases involving police using the smell of marijuana to search cars will “likely be few and far between,” Thursday’s ruling says. Cohen was driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike in January 2016 when police stopped his car. They had been on the lookout for him because of an informant’s tip that Cohen traveled south to bring guns back to New Jersey. The officer who stopped Cohen said he smelled “a strong odor of raw marijuana” coming from the Honda, and cited that to search the passenger compartment, where he found no marijuana, and then the engine compartment, where he also found no weed but did find a rifle and revolver, according to the New Jersey Monitor.
The officer’s search of the car should have stopped after he found no marijuana in the passenger compartment of Cohen’s car, Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote. “A generalized smell of raw marijuana does not justify a search of every compartment of an automobile,” said Pierre-Louis. Cohen attempted to suppress the evidence of guns found during the car search but with no luck, despite the trial court judge saying he was troubled by the “subjective testimony” of the smell of marijuana when there is no evidence “to suggest marijuana was in the car.” Cohen entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of unlawful possession of a weapon and was sentenced to five years in prison. The decision to allow the weapons to be entered into evidence against Cohen was upheld by an appeals court. Thursday’s ruling reverses that decision. Pierre-Louis cited a 1980 case that says an officer’s search of a car “must be reasonable in scope.”