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Smell of marijuana leads to student driver’s arrest before test

A student driver, hopeful that he might pass his exam and get his permanent license, is now facing multiple felony charges, including drug possession and trafficking, after the odor of cannabis led officers to drugs and weapons hidden in the young man’s car.

The 22-year-old Maryland native was waiting to take his driver’s license exam when the examiner alerted a nearby officer that she smelled marijuana. Typically, examiners do a brief inspection of a vehicle before they allow drivers to take their tests — but that doesn’t usually include checking anything more than whether or not the vehicle’s lights and turn signals work.

The odds are good that the would-be driver wasn’t expecting anyone to look any further — and he may not have realized that the smell of marijuana is considered very distinctive. That smell alone is usually enough probable cause for an officer to initiate the search of a vehicle.

“Probable cause” is what a police officer uses in order to testify in court that he or she had a reasonable belief that a crime was being committed and the place being searched was somehow tied to that crime. There are generally only a few reasons that an officer can execute any kind of search of someone’s personal property, including that person’s vehicle, without a warrant — and “probable cause” is one of them.

Whether or not an officer really had probable cause to initiate a search is often one of the most hotly debated issues in any criminal trial. Every case is somewhat unique, but criminal defense attorneys can often challenge the basis of the probable cause. If the court agrees that the probable cause for a search is insufficient, the evidence gained in that search will be thrown out — which may greatly weaken or destroy the prosecution’s case.