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Law will prevent searches based on marijuana smell

The smell of marijuana will no longer be reason enough for local police officers to search vehicles during traffic stops.

The change in policy for the agencies comes on the heel of New York state legalizing recreational marijuana for those over the age of 21. Under the bill signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York will start automatically expunging some past marijuana-related convictions, and people won’t be arrested or prosecuted for possession of pot up to 3 ounces.

With its legalization, police no longer have the probable cause to search vehicles during traffic stops if they happen to smell burnt and unburnt marijuana. In the past, such a presence allowed officers to examine the insides of vehicles, which sometimes led to the discovery of drugs or weapons resulting in more serious charges.

But not any more, according to several police departments in Chautauqua County contacted Monday by The Post-Journal and OBSERVER.

“While law enforcement across the state are continuing to review and discuss the ramifications of the new laws, what is clear is the fact we cannot search vehicles based on the odor of cannabis or even witnessing small quantities of cannabis,” said Chautauqua County Sheriff James Quattrone.

The sheriff said the new directive was given to deputies last week, after the governor signed the bill into law. He did note that deputies are able to investigate those believed to be driving while impaired, based on the “odor of burning cannabis combined with signs of impairment and other indicators such as erratic driving and other vehicle and traffic violations.”

Quattrone said he has several questions regarding the legalization of marijuana that have yet to be answered. However, he feels the law’s impact will be seen on local roads and felt in communities.

“I continue to believe that the legalization of cannabis will lead to increased use and subsequent increase in automobile crashes and other social and medical problems,” he said.

Ellicott Police Chief William Ohnmeiss Jr. said prohibiting officers from searching vehicles based on smelling marijuana is “the only choice we have,” a byproduct of the law , he said, that will likely impact the discovery of other drugs that are still illegal to use in New York.

“They could have a trunk full (of drugs) probably,” Ohnmeiss said, noting that for officers to search a vehicle going forward more than 3 ounces will have to be visible from outside the vehicle. “I think it’s going to pose some interesting problems.”

He added, “Like anything else with these laws, it’ll all be adjusting. We’ve been dealt these hands before. I totally disagree with it, but we’re just going to have to comply. I believe this (law allowing recreational use) will lead to bigger things, but we’ll see what trouble comes out of it.”

In Jamestown, Chief Timothy Jackson said, “Smell alone cannot justify a search of a vehicle.” However, he said the policy will be different for a driver exhibiting signs of impairment.

The New York State Police which, along with the Sheriff’s Office, patrols Interstate 86 and accounts for a large number of traffic stops, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. The Dunkirk Police Department also did not return a call regarding its policy.

The legislation also provides protections for cannabis users in the workplace, housing, family court, schools, colleges and universities, and sets a target of providing half of marijuana licenses to individuals from underrepresented communities.

In a unique provision, New Yorkers 21 and over can now smoke cannabis in public, including on sidewalks. No other state allows that, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of pro-legalization group NORML.

Still, New Yorkers can’t smoke or vape marijuana in locations where smoking is prohibited by state law, including workplaces, indoor bars and restaurants and within 100 feet of a school.

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