This video was submitted by Jordan, who was pulled over in Charleston, West Virginia while delivering food via an online app. He was pulled over for a broken tag-light. Officers then asked him to exit the vehicle. He was frisked and then made to watch, while officers searched his vehicle because they claimed to smell marijuana. Can cops order you out of your vehicle at a traffic stop for any reason? Can they frisk you and search your pockets for any reason once they order you out of the vehicle? Can they search your vehicle just because they claim to smell marijuana?
“[A] police officer may as a matter of course order the driver of a lawfully stopped car to exit his vehicle.” Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 410, 117 S.Ct. 882, 137 L.Ed.2d 41 (1997) (citing Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977) (per curiam)). That rule, the justification for which is officer safety, extends to passengers, as well. Wilson, 519 U.S. at 414–15, 117 S.Ct. 882. (United States v. Vaughan, 700 F.3d 705 (4th Cir. 2012)).
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police officers from prolonging a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to investigate (and write a ticket for) a traffic violation unless the officers have reasonable suspicion that the stopped vehicle’s occupants are engaging in other crimes. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354-56 (2015).
The odor of marijuana alone, as of the current state of the law, provides probable cause for officers to search a vehicle for evidence of marijuana possession – despite state laws legalizing the possession of marijuana under some circumstances. As the Fourth Circuit noted in United States v. Mitchell (4th Cir. 2018), “[t]his is especially the case so long as marijuana possession is prohibited by federal law, without exception. 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1).”