The month of January has turned out to be a big month for court rulings based on whether individuals should or shouldn’t face over the smell of cannabis. Based on a federal judge’s dismissal of a massive lawsuit against a smelly cannabis farmer, the Vermont Supreme Court has decided that certain marijuana odors are not a valid reason for a search of persons or seizure of property. The significant ruling establishes a binding legal precedent across all courts in Vermont and comes at the conclusion of a longtime lawsuit by the Vermont ACLU.
Since 2013, the possession of little amounts of cannabis was decriminalized in Vermont. And in 2018, Vermont was the ninth state to legalize the adult use of marijuana. However, in March 2014, a Vermont state trooper stopped Rultand resident Greg Zullo and confiscated his vehicle. The officer wanted to search the car because it had the smell of “burnt marijuana.” The trooper stated that he stopped Zullo over because the snow was blocking the registration sticker of the car.
The police towed Zullo’s vehicle to be able to search it legally. When the police searched the car, the saw a grinder and a glass pipe with cannabis residue. None of the items found are constituted a criminal or civil offense under Vermont law. However, Zullo’s resistance to consent to a search of his car led to the confiscation of his property. Zullo carried the case to the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the State of Vermont based on the search and seizure of his car.
Most recently, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of ACLU. Associate Justice Harold E. Eaton Jr. declared that the state trooper never had to seize Zullo’s car after saying he scented burnt cannabis. Moreover, Justice Eaton Jr. announced that the scent of burnt marijuana should not lead to search and seizure of property. During the hearing, Vermont wanted to argue that it was immune from such lawsuits. State attorneys attempted the case through different statutes which involved valuable suspicion and potential cause.
Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court stated that “the smell of marijuana is an element, but not potentially a decisive factor, as to if probable cause exists. Alternatively, just the smell of burnt cannabis doesn’t result in a definitive reason to confiscate an individual’s vehicle. This is because the (slight) smell of burnt cannabis “is much less probative as to if a vehicle has marijuana in contrast to an overwhelming smell of fresh marijuana coming from the trunk of a car.
Nevertheless, the decision of the Supreme Court makes way for Zullo to fill for damages and restitution. According to the 50-page ruling of Justice Eaton Jr., “a straightforward private right of action for damages due to alleged blatant violations” of Zullo’s civil rights is valuable against the state. However, there is no statement on whether or not Zullo will fill for further action against Vermont.
Significantly, the ruling of Justice Eaton Jr.’s establishes an essential and viable legal precedent for courts all over Vermont. The decision by the Supreme Court means that no lower court can use the smell of burnt marijuana as a reason for starting a search. However, residents of Vermont can still be fined over the smell of fresh cannabis. And driving under the influence of marijuana is still illegal.