Whenever drugs are found in a car after a traffic stop, the first thing that defense counsel must do is determine the validity of the stop itself. The police cannot randomly stop a car and then later assign the reason for the stop as being a traffic violation. There must be a legitimate traffic violation observed prior to pulling the car over under California and federal constitutional law. If that is not done, drug crimes charged after the illegitimate traffic stop will generally have to be dismissed.
Thus, the general rule is that a car cannot be stopped by the police without prior "reasonable suspicion" of a crime or traffic violation taking place. In Santa Rosa recently, California Highway Patrol officers pulled over a car that they said had darkly tinted front windows and no rear license plate. The stop resulted in the arrest of its four occupants after police allegedly smelled marijuana smoke as they approached the car. They also say that the driver, who had a suspended license since 2006, handed the officers a small package of marijuana.
Those allegations established the authority for a search of the vehicle, according to police. Police say that they allegedly found LSD, marijuana, cocaine and other contraband inside the vehicle. They arrested all four occupants on drug crimes and arrested the driver also on suspected DUI and driving under suspension.
The allegation that the suspect who was driving with a suspended license would hand marijuana over to the officers is a mystery that defense counsel will want to investigate and unravel for accuracy. Also, the mere smelling of marijuana may not be sufficient probable cause to authorize a full search of a vehicle and its occupants for drug crimes in a state like California, where medical marijuana is legal. It may be argued that something more than the aroma of marijuana is needed because the reason for the smoke could have been the legitimate use of medical marijuana by an occupant.
Source: pressdemocrat.com, "Four arrested on drug charges after Santa Rosa", Bill Swindell, July 30, 2015