Court To Cop: You Need More Than ‘Odor Of Marijuana’ And Inconsistent Testimony To Justify A Warrantless Search
When cops are looking to perform warrantless searches, the only thing more useful than drug dogs is officers’ own noses. The invocation of the phrase "smell of marijuana" magically dissipates the protective shield of the Fourth Amendment, allowing officers to engage in searches that often seem to resemble "general rummaging."
Every so often, this Constitutional evasion scheme fails to pay off. And it’s usually because the officer engaging in a warrantless search or unjustified arrest has gotten used to getting away with it and is caught off-guard when someone questions their actions or challenges their methods.
That’s the case here in this Delaware Superior Court decision [PDF], coming to us via FourthAmendment.com. This suppression order is the direct result of the assertions and actions of a particularly unreliable narrator, Wilmington Police Department Detective James Wiggins.
Detective Wiggins was roaming the streets in an unmarked car when he came across Ivan Cornelius sitting in his parked car. This soon turned into a full-blown search of Cornelius’ vehicle, one that attracted the helping hands of six other officers before it concluded. The end result of the search was this:
Detective Wiggins claimed during direct examination that he found “a bunch of marijuana.” When pressed for more information during cross-examination, Detective Wiggins clarified and stated he meant a “bunch of leaves.” However, there was not enough to send to the lab for testing.
Training and experience etc.
When asked how many leaves it would take to submit the marijuana to the state lab, Detective Wiggins replied that he does not know.
That’s kind of embarrassing for someone on the "Safe Streets Task Force" who’s been given permission to fight crime on pretty much his own terms.
Detective Wiggins stated that it is his job “to stop things from happening before they happen” and, accordingly, to proactively stop cars and ride around looking for suspicious activity.
Wait. He wasn’t finished. Here’s how cross-examination went for Wiggins.
After being unable to state how many leaves are needed to send for testing, the Detective conceded that the lab is able to test even small, personal amounts of marijuana.
Mistakes were made, but at least the detective safetened the streets a bit by removing a "bunch" of drugs from circulation.
The Detective further conceded that the amount he allegedly observed was probably either less than personal use or just personal use.
What Wiggins does know is that the smell of marijuana is a pretty handy way to airgap his actions from the Constitution. As a free-roaming detective, Wiggins firmly believes this odor is all the reasonable suspicion he needs to engage in hundreds of undocumented stops and searches.
Notably, it is Detective Wiggins’s understanding that he can search the entirety of a car as long as he smells marijuana. Detective Wiggins explained that, as a standard patrol officer, he would normally have to call in a traffic stop into WILCOM if he stopped a vehicle. However, as a Task Force officer, he does not need to report to WILCOM when he stops a vehicle for a traffic stop. As Detective Wiggins puts it, if he stops a car and smells marijuana, but does not issue a ticket, there would be no record of it. Moreover, Detective Wiggins estimated that he has made around a thousand traffic stops in the four years that he has been assigned to the Task Force and that he stopped around fifty vehicles the week prior.
Completing Detective Wiggins’ zero accountability loadout was the lack of recording equipment in his unmarked car and his employer being extremely slow on the body cam uptake.
All of this combined to give us the complete botchery observed above (and observed for a bit more below): a detective who doesn’t seem to know much about weed making completely undocumented stops hundreds of times a year based almost solely on the unverifiable claim that he "smelled" something suspicious.
The court here isn’t going to let Wiggins get away with this one. In addition to his inconsistent testimony on the amount of weed recovered during the search, the detective’s narrative shifted when challenged by the defendant’s lawyer.
Detective Wiggins’s initial testimony concerning his observation of the marijuana leaves and air freshener is contradicted by his later testimony. First, in response to what Detective Wiggins noticed about the car while engaging with Mr. Cornelius in the vehicle, Detective Wiggins claimed he smelled marijuana, observed marijuana leaves, and air freshener. Later, in response to Mr. Cornelius’s counsel’s statement concerning whether Detective Wiggins observed marijuana leaves before the two minutes and twenty second mark in the video, Detective Wiggins responded “I’m not sure if I’ve seen it yet or not.”
Finally, the court says the smell of marijuana alone cannot be enough to justify a stop or a warrantless search. (Emphasis in the original.)
The State argues that the smell of marijuana alone is sufficient to establish probable cause. Marijuana odors, while relevant to probable-cause determinations, does not require this Court to find that probable cause exists in every circumstance on sole basis of the odor. Probable cause determinations are made by evaluating the totality of the circumstances.
For instance, in Law v. State, the vehicle’s speed, the occupant’s extreme nervousness, and the odor of marijuana contributed to the Court’s determination that probable cause existed for the search of the car. Likewise, in Valentine v. State, the occupant’s excessive speed, the time of day, and the odor of marijuana contributed to the Court’s determination that probable cause existed.
No probable cause here. The court says the odor of marijuana likely didn’t exist, the other officers at the scene positioned themselves "in a manner consistent with preparing for a search" despite there being no evidence a search was necessary, and the complete lack of normal procedures or documentation are fatal to the state’s case. The detective’s inability to maintain consistency during testimony and cross-examination certainly didn’t help. The evidence (what little there was of it) is now gone and without it, the state has nothing left to prosecute.
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July 20, 2021 at 07:50PM