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News, Politics

Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules Cannabis Odor Is Legal Grounds for Search

Lemetria Whitehurst

by Lemetria Whitehurst

August 15, 2023 12:00 pm ET Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules Cannabis Odor Is Legal Grounds for Search

In a significant ruling that holds potential implications for cannabis law reform nationwide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently determined that simply smelling cannabis is enough to justify a police search. The ruling comes in spite of the fact that hemp and CBD were legalized nationally in the 2018 Farm Bill. Both have similar scents to marijuana. Furthermore, this new court judgment overrules two lower court rulings. 

The court’s decision, seen by many as controversial, is set to reignite the debate surrounding the balance between civil liberties and law enforcement’s powers in the evolving landscape of cannabis legalization. Read along as the details of this intriguing case are explored and its potential implications analyzed.

An In-Depth Look at the Wisconsin Supreme Court Case

The case in question centers around Quaheem Moore, a Wisconsin resident caught up in this controversial legal tug-of-war. Moore was pulled over for speeding by two police officers back in 2019. As they approached the vehicle to engage with Moore, the officers reported detecting a strong odor of burnt cannabis emanating from the car. Upon questioning, Moore admitted to having a CBD vaping device in the car, a car rented by his brother. However, this didn’t put an end to the officers’ suspicions.

Despite the lack of an explicit smell of marijuana on Moore’s person, the officers cited the scent of cannabis from the car as probable cause to initiate a search. The search led them to find packets of fentanyl and cocaine hidden in Moore’s pants, leading to his arrest for possession of narcotics. However, it’s worth noting that Moore was not charged with possession of marijuana, highlighting a critical contradiction that would soon spark a significant legal dispute.  

Dispute in Court

The legal dispute revolved around a subtle yet pivotal point: the distinction between the odors of legal hemp or CBD and illegal marijuana. In Moore’s defense, his attorneys argued that since the officers could not definitively ascertain that they smelled marijuana on Moore, and considering the legality of CBD and hemp, the police did not possess sufficient probable cause to execute the search. As such, they insisted that the narcotics discovered during the search should be ruled out as evidence.

This argument resonated with the initial circuit court judge and an appeals court. Both concurred that the evidence gathered during the search was inadmissible. The prosecutors, however, disputed these rulings. They appealed, arguing that the lower courts were wrong to declare the evidence unfit for trial, opening the door for the case to ascend to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Understanding Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision

The Wisconsin Supreme Court rendered a decision that challenged the lower court rulings. In a 4-3 verdict, the conservative majority sided with the prosecution. The court, led by Justice Brian Hagedorn, asserted that given Moore was the sole occupant of the vehicle, it was reasonable for the police to associate him with the “illegal substance” they identified based on the odor. This decision leaned heavily on a precedent from 1999, which stated that the “unmistakable” scent of a controlled substance indicates a committed crime. However, the ruling did not go unchallenged. 

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The court’s liberal minority, led by Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet, questioned the applicability of the 1999 precedent in the context of Moore’s case. They argued that the police lacked concrete evidence tying the cannabis odor to Moore. 

Further, they pointed out the outdated nature of the 1999 ruling, emphasizing that it fails to consider the subsequent legalization of hemp and CBD. The dissenting justices highlighted that the smell detected by officers could be attributed to raw or smoked hemp, which isn’t considered criminal activity. This stark division within the court underscores the complex issues surrounding this decision.

Implications of the Ruling

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling holds far-reaching implications for future police searches and the civil liberties of individuals. This is especially true in light of the increasing acceptance of hemp and CBD use. By equating the scent of cannabis, which could stem from legal substances, with probable cause for a search, the court has potentially broadened the scope of police powers. 

Critics of the decision argue this could lead to increased searches based on unverifiable or unreliable conclusions, posing a potential infringement on personal freedoms. This sentiment was echoed by Moore’s attorney, Joshua Hargrove, who voiced his concern in the aftermath of the ruling. He stated, “This opinion could subject more citizens engaged in lawful behavior to arrest,” as quoted by the Associated Press. 

His cautionary words serve as a stark reminder of the potential impact of this decision on citizens’ interactions with law enforcement and the potential for legal activities to be unjustifiably criminalized.   

A Final Note

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling reflects the complexities that arise from the changing legal landscape surrounding cannabis use. Despite the legalization of hemp and CBD, this decision has underscored the challenges in differentiating between legal and illegal use based purely on scent. As cannabis laws continue to change, rulings such as this one draw attention to the need for clear, discernable boundaries that protect both individual liberties and societal safety. 

The impact of this decision extends beyond Wisconsin’s borders and could influence cannabis law reform nationwide. This case is a stark reminder of the complex legal issues that can surface as more states lean towards legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis. It highlights the delicate balance between law enforcement powers and individual rights, particularly concerning this therapeutic plant.

Post Your Comments

Jamie Lowell says:

August 16, 2023 at 2:48 pm

I don’t get the assertion that this ruling is meaningful outside of Wisconsin. The WSC ruling is archaic, and not to say that misguided police, prosecutors and judges will utilize it to unnecessarily hurt citizens- but it should have considerably less impact if medical cannabis is legalized and it will be moot upon full legalization- or so I would think. What am I missing?


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