Recently in Probable Cause Category

August 11, 2014

Smell of Unburnt Marijuana Does Not Provide Probable Cause Justifying Warrantless Search of Vehicle

After Massachusetts made it legal to possess one ounce or less of marijuana, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled in Commonwealth v. Cruz that the odor of burnt marijuana alone could not provide reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify a warrantless search. In a recent case, the SJC expanded that decision and held that the smell of unburnt marijuana does not provide probable cause for the police to search a vehicle.

In Commonwealth v. Overmyer, the defendant was involved in a motor vehicle crash. When the police arrived at the scene, they encountered a "very strong odor" of unburnt marijuana emanating from the defendant's vehicle. After questioning the defendant about marijuana being present in the vehicle, the defendant acknowledged that a bag of marijuana was in the glove compartment, and gave the keys to the police. After the police retrieved a "fat bag" of marijuana, the officers continued to smell an odor or marijuana in the vehicle, and questioned the defendant about the possibility of the vehicle obtaining a larger amount of marijuana. Although the defendant denied this, the police proceeded with a search of the car, and found a backpack in the back seat filled with marijuana.

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February 19, 2014

SJC Rules Warrant Required to Obtain Cell Phone Data

Yesterday, in a 5-2 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that state law enforcement may not compel cellular telephone service providers to provide historical cell site location information for a particular cell phone without first obtaining a valid search warrant. In other words, under Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the government may not use a person's cell phone records to track that person's physical location unless they have first obtained a search warrant supported by probable cause.

Cell phone service providers use cell sites or cell towers placed throughout particular regions, which send and receive signals from a subscriber's cell phone that is operated within the particular region. When a subscriber makes or receives a call, a record is created of the cell site used. This information enables a cell phone service provider to approximate the location of an operating cell phone within its network based on the cell phone's communication with cell sites in the area. The greater number of cell sites in a region, the greater the accuracy of the cell phone's location.

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