Friday, July 18, 2008

Officer, we were burning sage and oregano

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled Thursday that catching a whiff of what smells like marijuana is not sufficient grounds to search all the passengers of an automobile during a traffic stop.

That action overturns a twenty-nine-year-old precedent that allowed officers to search or arrest passengers after smelling marijuana in or around a car, and it stems from a two-year-old legal battle.

Following a 2006 traffic stop in Skagit County, a state trooper searched both driver and passenger after smelling marijuana coming from the car.

During the search, the officer discovered a bong and a small baggie of weed on the passenger; he arrested both on drug use charges.

In the ruling, Justice Charles Johnson wrote, “the protections [of the constitution] do not fade away or disappear within the confines of an automobile.”

I told you that to tell you this.

Reading the news report this morning, I was reminded of a story I wrote, forty years ago, when I was a rookie reporter for The Daily Reporter in Dover, Ohio. An Ohio highway patrolman made a similar stop and discovered, in the trunk of the car, a bag containing several pounds of “a green, leafy substance” [police loved that euphemism in the sixties].

The driver of the vehicle found his way to jail, the bag found its way to a laboratory [there were no reliable field-test kits then] and the patrolman and his superiors found their way to a press conference, where they offered statements and handed out photographs of the contraband.

The story produced big headlines; I got a front-page byline. The follow-up story, the next day, made the front page, too. The Highway Patrol got the lab report back and had to admit that the bag they thought contained two pounds of “grass” contained just that.

Plain old lawn grass.