Court Rules Possession of Marijuana Not Probable Cause to Search Car

In the recently decided case of People v. Lee, the Appellate Court of San Diego County ruled that possession by a driver of a legal amount of marijuana doesn’t give the police the right to search the car for evidence of other crimes.

Mr. Lee was pulled over when the cops noticed that his car didn’t have front license plates. He was asked for his driver’s license and told the cop he didn’t have it with him. The cop told him to get out of the car. Lee did. The cop patted Lee down and found a legal amount of marijuana. They ran Lee’ name through the system and found out his license was suspended.  The cop asked Lee if there was anything illegal in the car. Lee said no.

The cop then searched the cabin of the car. He removed the back seat and then looked behind the fold down armrest in the back. He saw into the trunk. There he saw a black backpack, which he opened and found a handgun and some money.

At this point the cop asked Lee if there was anything in the car Lee wanted to talk about. Lee said “No”. The cop asked the Lee if he had the key to the glove compartment, Lee said “No”. The cop asked the passenger if he had the key. He did. The cop opened the locked glove compartment and found two bags of cocaine and some cash.

Lee was arrested and charged with transportation of cocaine with intent to sell while armed.

The trial court granted Lee’s motion to suppress. The prosecutor appealed.

A person’s car is subject to less Fourth Amendment protection than their house or office.  The reason for that is the relative mobility of a car and people’s diminished expectation of privacy in their car. This comes to light in two exceptions to the requirement that the police need a warrant to search an area. First is the automobile exception: the cops may search any area where there is probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime may be found. Second, there is the auto-inventory exception: the cops can search a vehicle prior to impounding it.

The Court of Appeal started their analysis by stating that since California passed Proposition 64 and legalized recreational marijuana the legislature enacted Health and Safety Code § 11362.1(a) stating adults 21 and older can possess up to 28.5 grams and H&S § 11362.1(c) stating possession of a legal amount of marijuana cannot be grounds for the cops to detain, arrest or provide probable cause for the cops to search the person. The Court of Appeal said that none of the other circumstances surrounding Lee’s stop amounted to probable cause that there was evidence of a crime in the car in this case.

The Court of Appeal then moved on to the search incident to arrest exception and said that the search in this case was not indicative of a search incident to arrest because the cop searched in places not usually searched (under the backseat) and because of the questions the cop kept asking Lee.

Motion to suppress granted. Affirmed (upheld) on appeal.

Some lessons from this case for people to take away: Lee didn’t cooperate with the police; he didn’t give consent to the search. Most importantly Lee had a lawyer who knew the law and fought for his client.

If you have a case where you feel there was a questionable stop, you need a lawyer who knows the law and will fight for you. Give me a call at 213-893-8640 to discuss your case and how I can fight this or any other issue for you.


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