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Court News Ohio

Police Search that Uncovered Marijuana-Infused Candy Legal

Image of gummy bears and a marijuana bud (AHPhotoswpg/iStock/Thinkstock)

Vehicle search that discovered marijuana-infused candies deemed legal.

Image of gummy bears and a marijuana bud (AHPhotoswpg/iStock/Thinkstock)

Vehicle search that discovered marijuana-infused candies deemed legal.

A traffic stop of a vehicle led to discovery of sealed envelopes containing 150 individually wrapped marijuana-infused candies by a Cleveland State University police officer. The Ohio Supreme Court today ruled the search was legal and the evidence can be used in connection with drug trafficking and other offenses.

In a majority opinion authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the Supreme Court concluded that officer Jeffrey Madej, after discovering in Edwin Vega’s car small amounts of marijuana, three cellphones, aerosol cans of air freshener, rolling papers, and an open package of fruit-flavored “Sweetstone” candy, reasonably suspected the envelopes may contain contraband.

“After finding marijuana and other drug paraphernalia in Vega’s car, Madej had probable cause to open the envelopes because it was reasonable to believe that they could contain marijuana,” Justice O’Donnell wrote.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the opinion. First District Court of Appeals Judge Marilyn Zayas, sitting for Justice Mary DeGenaro, also joined the opinion. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred in judgment only.

Traffic Stop Leads to Search
In March 2015, Madej observed Vega turn left on a red light at an intersection near Cleveland State. He initiated a stop and, when approaching Vega’s car, smelled a marijuana odor. He asked Vega to exit the vehicle and searched it, uncovering marijuana buds, the cellphones, the aerosol cans, the rolling papers, and the Sweetstone candy in the console. He also saw a partially opened U.S. Postal Service box with two priority mail sealed envelopes.

Madej felt the packages and believed they contained individually packaged drugs. Vega told him the envelopes contained stickers, but the officer did not believe him. He asked to open them, but Vega did not consent.

Madej then contacted his supervisor and other officers for guidance about whether he had probable cause to open the envelopes. He also tried to secure a drug-sniffing dog, but was unable. He wrote Vega a ticket for making an illegal turn and possessing marijuana. He then opened one envelope and discovered 75 packages of the same marijuana-infused candy he had located in the car’s center console.

Vega was arrested for drug trafficking. The arrest occurred one hour and 12 minutes after the traffic stop. Later testing confirmed each priority envelope contained 75 packages of the marijuana-infused candy.

Vega Seeks to Bar Evidence
In September 2015, Vega was indicted and asked the court to suppress as evidence the candy found in the envelopes, arguing Madej had no probable cause to search the envelopes. He also argued his constitutional rights were violated because of the length of the stop.

In January 2016, the trial court agreed with Vega’s arguments, and suppressed the evidence. The Cuyahoga County prosecuting attorney appealed that decision to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. A divided appellate panel affirmed the trial court’s decision, with the dissenting judge finding Madej had probable cause to open the envelopes.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Court Considers Right to Search
The Court examined whether the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures was violated by the way Madej conducted the search and the time it took to discover the packaged candies.

The prosecutor argued that based on the materials found in the car, the officer had probable cause to believe the envelopes contained marijuana and had the right to search them. Because he had a right to conduct the search, it justified the time it took for him to attempt to obtain a canine unit for assistance and to conduct the search, the prosecutor maintained.

Vega argued that Madej had cause to search the car, but not to search the envelopes because they did not smell like marijuana.

Today’s opinion noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Ross permitted warrantless searches of automobile containers that could contain items for which officers have probable cause to search. The high court ruled that if there is probable cause to search a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies searching every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal objects.

The U.S. Supreme Court revisited the issue again in 1999 and ruled that where probable cause exists to search for contraband in a car, it is reasonable for officers to examine packages and containers without having to demonstrate probable cause for each container they want to search.

The opinion further noted that in 2000, in State v. Moore, the Court determined that the smell of marijuana is sufficient to give police probable cause to search a vehicle.

“In this case, Madej testified that he smelled a strong odor of marijuana, which could not be accounted for by the small amount of marijuana he found in the center console,” Justice O’Donnell observed.

Madej also found the three cell phones, odor-masking agents, and cases of rolling paper, all indications of drug trafficking, the Court noted. Based on the Ross decision, Madej had the right to open the envelopes, the opinion concluded.

Length of Search Examined
In addition to having the right to search the envelopes, the Court also concluded that Madej conducted the search within a reasonable amount of time.

In the 2007 State v. Batchili decision, the Ohio Supreme Court had ruled that a traffic stop may be prolonged if there is “reasonable suspicion under the totality of the circumstances” to justify the detention. Vega claimed that after he received the traffic citations, there was no reason to extend the stop for further investigation.

In the Court’s opinion, Justice O’Donnell recognized that Vega’s argument ignores that there was probable cause to detain him and open the envelopes because of the strong smell of marijuana and other evidence of trafficking. The Court stated the stop was legally extended because of the belief the car contained contraband.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

2017-0618. State v. Vega, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4002.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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