Washington Appeals Court: Marijuana Odor in Vehicle Occupied by Minors Sufficient for Terry Stop

Generally, a police officer needs a warrant to seize a person suspected of a crime.  There are some exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the Terry stop.  Terry allows an officer to briefly stop and question someone if the officer had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  The officer’s suspicion must be based on specific and articulable facts and be individualized to the person.  Challenging the validity of a seizure, including a Terry stop, can be an important aspect of a Washington criminal defense case.

A minor defendant recently appealed his conviction, arguing the officer did not have grounds to conduct a Terry stop.  According to the court’s opinion, the officer stopped a vehicle after seeing it roll through a stop sign.  There were three passengers in addition to the driver. The defendant was the front seat passenger.

The officer smelled marijuana when he approached the vehicle.  The driver told him all of the occupants were seventeen.  The driver denied having marijuana, there being marijuana in the car, or any of the passengers having marijuana.  He said his mother used marijuana and that could have been what the officer smelled.  The officer frisked him and put him the back of the patrol car.

The officer then asked the defendant to get out of the vehicle.  The officer told the defendant he smelled marijuana and, because none of the vehicle’s occupants were eighteen, it could not be legal.  When asked if he knew anything about the marijuana, the defendant said he had smoked some earlier but did not have any on him.

The officer told the defendant he was “not looking to hem people up,” but if he was not honest, then the officer would have to do things “the hard way.” He asked again if the defendant had any marijuana in his bag.  The defendant admitted having a “little blunt” in his backpack. He also acknowledged he was under eighteen. The officer asked if the driver knew he had the marijuana and the defendant said he had not told the driver he had it.  After getting some additional identifying information, the officer asked the defendant to get his backpack and put it on the trunk.  He then asked if there was anything other than the blunt and the defendant admitted to having a jar of marijuana.

The defendant was charged with a person, under the age of twenty-one, possessing less than forty grams of marijuana.  The defendant moved to suppress the marijuana, arguing the officer did not have individualized suspicion to detain him in accordance with Terry.  He also argued that the officer violated Miranda in obtaining his statements. The state argued it was a valid Terry stop, so Miranda warnings were not needed.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding the officer had “specific and articulable facts to reasonably support the intrusion.”  The trial court noted the officer smelled marijuana from inside the vehicle and the occupants were all juveniles who could not legally possess the marijuana.

The defendant was found guilty of the charged offense following a stipulated facts bench trial. He appealed, arguing the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress.

The defendant cited a Washington Supreme Court case that held marijuana odor in the general area was insufficient to support probable cause for an arrest.  The appeals court noted, however, that the Washington Supreme Court also stated the officer who smelled marijuana coming from a vehicle with multiple occupants had probable cause to search the vehicle.  The officer in that case arrested the vehicle occupants without a warrant and searched the vehicle incident to the arrest, so the Washington Supreme Court invalidated both the arrest and the search.  State v. Grande.  The appeals court distinguished Grande because it was based on an arrest, not a Terry stop like the case before it. A Terry stop has a lower standard of evidence than an arrest.

The appeals court found the officer’s observation of the driver running the stop sign supported the initial traffic stop.  The officer then identified the smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle based on his training and experience.  He also had reason to believe the occupants were all under eighteen years old.  He did not have probable cause to arrest the occupants for being in the car, but did have reasonable suspicion that a minor possessed marijuana, supporting a Terry stop including brief questioning.

The appeals court found the officer’s actions in detaining and questioning the defendant were lawful and upheld the conviction.

Although the appeals court found the facts in this case supported the Terry stop, slightly different facts may lead to a different result.  If your child is facing criminal charges, the Washington juvenile criminal defense attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, have the skills and experience to fight on your child’s behalf.  Call us at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation.

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