Illinois may bar cops from searching cars based only on the smell of marijuana

By Glenn Minnis

(The Center Square) – Nearly every day, prosecutors in Chicago’s felony bond court session can be heard explaining how police found guns, drugs, or other contraband inside a vehicle after an “odor of burnt cannabis” detected during a traffic stop led cops to conduct a search. And wise defense attorneys counter that there’s no way to know if the cops really smelled pot or not.

Rafael Castillo/Flickr Creative Commons

Now, Democrats in the state senate have signed off on legislation that would prohibit law enforcement officials from conducting car searches based on the smell of marijuana emanating from a vehicle.

With recreational marijuana now legal in Illinois for three years, individuals also would no longer be required to store marijuana in an odor-proof container as they travel to and from.

Supporters of the measure argue it will protect residents from unreasonable searches. The idea for the legislation stems from a court case in Will County where an officer pulled over a driver whose vehicle smelled of marijuana, and the suspect told officers someone had smoked in the car much earlier.

“People – especially people of color – are unnecessarily pulled over far too often,” Sen. Rachel Ventura told Marijuana Moment. “The odor of cannabis alone shouldn’t be one of those reasons. Cannabis is legal in Illinois and it’s a pungent scent that can stick to clothes for extended periods of time.”

Illinois Sheriff’s Association executive director Jim Kaitschuk is among the growing number of law enforcement officials speaking out against the measure.

“You can’t have endless marijuana in a vehicle,” Kaitschuk told The Center Square. “It’s only legal to a certain amount. Are we also going to inhibit the ability to intervene when the smell of burnt cannabis may be coming from the vehicle, when the motorists may actually be impaired?”

Kaitschuk says he also worries such a law could come to hamper officers, ultimately impacting the way they seek to do their jobs.

“I think this bill will have the ability to impact illicit markets in terms of people being able to carry more of the drug than they should,” he said. “Plus, folks may traffic marijuana cannabis to mask other drugs that may illegally be in the vehicle.”

Kaitschuk said he thinks the bill amounts to a solution in search of a problem.

“We’re not just stopping people because we smell cannabis,” he added. “That’s not a probable cause to stop a car. There has to be some other action or activity that occurred in terms of violation of the Vehicle Code that got us there.”

The bill is now headed to the House for debate.

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