- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

BOSTON (AP) -

The smell of marijuana coming from a car does not give police enough cause to pull the driver over, according to a split ruling by the state’s highest court.

The court on Tuesday ruled in the case of a New Bedford police officer who pulled over a driver in 2012 based on the odor of marijuana coming from the car and without having seen the driver commit any traffic violation.

The officer had previously stopped the car and arrested the woman who had normally driven it for heroin possession.

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.

The court argued in part that because of the change in the law, the “strong” or “very strong” smell of unburnt marijuana is no longer enough to provide police with probable cause to believe that a criminal amount of the drug is present.

The court said allowing such stops encourages police to continue to investigate and to pursue individuals suspected of marijuana possession in the same manner as before decriminalization.

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.

“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 was not unanimous, with justices Robert Cordy and Francis Spina writing a dissenting opinion.

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