Key Medical Marijuana Decisions – People v. Strasburg

Also see: Key Medical Marijuana Decisions by California Courts

People v. Strasburg

Citation 148 Cal. App. 4th 1052, 56 Cal. Rptr. 3d 306 (2007)
PDF of Full Opinion https://www.canorml.org/legal/strasburg.pdf
Fact Summary A law enforcement officer approached the driver’s side of defendant’s car and immediately smelled the odor of marijuana. The defendant admitted to the law enforcement officer he had been smoking marijuana and told the law enforcement officer he had a medical marijuana card. The law enforcement officer refused to look at the card and continued the investigation. Before trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, on the grounds that the law enforcement officer lacked probable cause to search his car because defendant was allowed to possess marijuana under the Compassionate Use Act (“CUA”). The trial court denied the motion to suppress, stating: “I believe that once an officer smells marijuana coming from a car that officer can search the car for the marijuana, and I haven’t been given any authority that possessing a medical marijuana card deprives the officer of the right to continue with that investigation.”
Summary Rule of Law Because the status of qualified patient does not confer an immunity from arrest, law enforcement officers may detain, search, and arrest a qualified patient for marijuana offenses where they have probable cause when they have reason to believe that the arrestee does not possess marijuana for his personal medical purposes. Under the facts and circumstances of this case, the law enforcement officer had probable cause to search defendant’s car for marijuana after he smelled the odor of marijuana. In other words, a patient’s possession of a valid medical marijuana card does not negate the probable cause for detainment, search, and arrest provided by the odor or presence of marijuana.
Facts & Procedure While on a routine patrol, a law enforcement officer “approached the driver’s side of defendant’s car.” 148 Cal. App. 4th at 1055. The law enforcement officer “immediately smelled the odor of marijuana.” Id. The defendant admitted to the law enforcement officer he had been smoking marijuana and told the law enforcement officer he had a medical marijuana card. Id. The law enforcement officer “refused to look at the card and said ‘something along [the] lines’ of ‘we don’t buy that here in Napa County.’” Id. at 1056. When asked “if he had marijuana on his person or in the car”, the defendant told the law enforcement officer “he did”. Id. at 1055−56. Afterwards, the defendant voluntarily turned over less than an ounce of marijuana, the law enforcement officer detained the defendant and searched the defendant’s vehicle discovering an additional 23 ounces of marijuana. Id. Before trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, on the grounds that the law enforcement officer “lacked probable cause to search his car because defendant was allowed to possess marijuana under the [CUA].” Id. at 1055. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, stating: “‘I believe that once an officer smells marijuana coming from a car that officer can search the car for the marijuana, and I haven’t been given any authority that possessing a medical marijuana card deprives the officer of the right to continue with that investigation.’” Id. at 1056.
Issue 1. Does a patient’s possession of a valid medical marijuana card negate the probable cause for detainment and search provided by the odor or presence of marijuana? Or alternatively, does the odor or presence of marijuana, even if for medical purposes, provide law enforcement probable cause to detain and search a patient?
Holding 1. “The fact that defendant had a medical marijuana prescription, and could lawfully possess an amount of marijuana greater than that [the law enforcement officer] initially found, does not detract from the officer’s probable cause.” 148 Cal. App. 4th at 1059−60. Because “the status of qualified patient does not confer an immunity from arrest”, “[l]aw enforcement officers may arrest a qualified patient for marijuana offenses where they have probable cause, based on all of the surrounding facts including qualified patient status, when they have reason to believe, for instance, that the arrestee does not possess marijuana for his personal medical purposes.” Id. at 1058 (citing People v. Mower, 28 Cal.4th 457, 468–69 (2002)). In other words, “the [CUA] provides a limited immunity—not a shield from reasonable investigation.” Id. at 1060.

“Under the facts and circumstances of this case, [the law enforcement officer] had probable cause to search defendant’s car for marijuana after he smelled the odor of marijuana.” Id. at 1059 (citations omitted). “Defendant admitted smoking marijuana, and the [the law enforcement officer] saw another bag of marijuana in the car after the defendant handed him one.” Id. “Armed with the knowledge that there was marijuana in the car, a person of ordinary caution would conscientiously entertain a strong suspicion that even if defendant makes only personal use of the marijuana found in [the passenger area], he might stash additional quantities for future use in other parts of the vehicle, including the trunk.” Id. (citations omitted). “Given the probable cause here, the officer is entitled to continue to search and investigate, and determine whether the subject of the investigation is in fact possessing the marijuana for personal medical needs . . . .” Id. at 1060.

Discussion As can be seen by the court’s holding and rationale, Strasburg is a direct outgrowth of People v. Mower, 28 Cal. 4th 457 (2002). What is more, Strasburg was immediately integrated into state law enforcement training and operations. See Ryan G. Adams, Chief of Police, Glendale Police Dep’t, Training Order 2007-02 (2007). Strasburg is directly responsible for the fact that “current [medical marijuana] laws are a catch-22 because self-incrimination is required to avoid arrest, but that self-incrimination will likely result in arrest.” See Jared Willis, Comment, The Hazy Cloud Engulfing Cultivation, Possession, and Transportation of Aggregate Amounts of Collectively Cultivated Medical Marijuana Pursuant to California Health and Safety Code Section 11362.775, 40 W. St. U. L. Rev. 135, 154 (2013).

For an analysis suggesting that Strasburg played a major part in the spike in state felony marijuana arrests that took place from 2007 to 2010, see Damian A. Martin, Comment, California Medical Marijuana Law: The Voters and Legislature Have Made Their Decision; Now Let Them Interpret It!, J.L. Econ. & Pol’y (forthcoming 2014–2015).

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