Robinson v. State

Decision Date20 January 2017
Docket NumberNo. 37, 39 and 46, Sept. Term 2016,37, 39 and 46, Sept. Term 2016
Citation451 Md. 94,152 A.3d 661
Parties Jermaul Rondell ROBINSON v. STATE of Maryland Dexter Williams v. State of Maryland Vernon Harvey Spriggs, III v. State of Maryland
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Ethan Frenchman, Asst. Public Defender (Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender of Maryland and Mark Colvin, Asst. Public Defender, Baltimore, MD), on brief, for petitioners.

Carrie J. Williams, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen. of Maryland and Todd W. Hesel, Asst. Atty. Gen., Baltimore, MD), on brief, for respondent.

Sonia Kumar, Esq., Deborah A. Jeon, Esq., David Roacah, Esq., American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland, Baltimore, MD, on brief, for amicus curiae of ACLU of Maryland and Chaz Slaughter.

Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten and Getty, JJ.

Watts, J.

In 2014, Maryland joined a number of other jurisdictions that have decriminalized, but not legalized, possession of small amounts of marijuana—that is, under the law of these jurisdictions, possession of a small amount of marijuana remains illegal, but is punishable by a fine, not by incarceration.1 Before October 1, 2014, under Maryland law, possession of less than ten grams of marijuana was a misdemeanor that carried a maximum penalty of ninety days of incarceration and a fine of $500. See 2014 Md. Laws. 1119 (Vol. II, Ch. 158, S.B. 364); Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2013 Supp.) § 5–601(c)(2)(ii). As of October 1, 2014, under Maryland law, possession of less than ten grams of marijuana became "a civil offense"2 that is punishable by participation in a drug education program, an assessment for substance abuse disorder, possible substance abuse treatment, and a fine, the amount of which depends on whether the violation is a first, second, or subsequent violation of the statute. See 2014 Md. Laws. 1119, 1124 (Vol. II, Ch. 158, S.B. 364); Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2014 Supp.) § 5–601(c)(2).

Here, Jermaul Rondell Robinson ("Robinson"), Dexter Williams ("Williams"), and Vernon Harvey Spriggs, III ("Spriggs") (together, "Petitioners") contend that, due to the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, a law enforcement officer no longer has probable cause to search a vehicle where the law enforcement officer detects an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. In separate cases, each Petitioner moved to suppress evidence that had been found in a vehicle that he had been driving or had possession of. In each case, at a hearing on the motion to suppress, a law enforcement officer testified that either a strong odor or an overwhelming odor of fresh marijuana was emanating from the car that the Petitioner had been using. In each case, the circuit court denied the motion to suppress, and each Petitioner was convicted of possession of at least ten grams of marijuana under the amended statute. Petitioners appealed, and, in each case, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment in an unreported opinion. Petitioners separately filed petitions for writs of certiorari , which this Court granted. We heard one oral argument as to Petitioners' cases on the same day, and this opinion serves to consolidate the cases.

Petitioners raise an important matter of first impression: whether, in light of the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, a law enforcement officer has probable cause to search a vehicle upon detecting an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. In a reported opinion in an earlier case—Bowling v. State, 227 Md.App. 460, 476, 134 A.3d 388, 398, cert. denied, 448 Md. 724, 141 A.3d 135 (2016) —the Court of Special Appeals held that the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana did not undermine the principle that the alert of a narcotics dog, that is certified to detect marijuana along with other controlled dangerous substances, constitutes probable cause to search a vehicle. In each of Petitioners' cases, the Court of Special Appeals applied Bowling and concluded that a law enforcement officer's detection of a strong odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle that the defendant possessed provides probable cause to search the vehicle, despite the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, because marijuana in any amount remains contraband—i.e. , goods that are illegal, but not necessarily criminal, to possess. In addition to the holding of the Court of Special Appeals in Bowling, courts in Maine, Oregon, California, Minnesota and Colorado have reached similar conclusions, namely, that where an officer detects the odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle, the warrantless search of the vehicle is permitted, even though these jurisdictions had decriminalized—and, in at least one instance, legalized—the possession of a small quantity of marijuana. See State v. Barclay, 398 A.2d 794 (Me. 1979) ; State v. Smalley, 233 Or.App. 263, 225 P.3d 844 (2010) ; People v. Waxler, 224 Cal.App.4th 712, 168 Cal.Rptr.3d 822 (2014), as modified on denial of reh'g(Apr. 3, 2014), review denied(June 11, 2014); State v. Ortega, 749 N.W.2d 851 (Minn. Ct. App. 2008), aff'd, 770 N.W.2d 145 (Minn. 2009) ; People v. Zuniga, 372 P.3d 1052 (Colo. 2016).

Upon careful consideration, in agreement with the conclusions of the Court of Special Appeals and the appellate courts of other jurisdictions, we hold that a law enforcement officer has probable cause to search a vehicle where the law enforcement officer detects an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle, as marijuana in any amount remains contraband, notwithstanding the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana; and the odor of marijuana gives rise to probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime. Simply put, decriminalization is not synonymous with legalization, and possession of marijuana remains unlawful.

BACKGROUND

No. 37: Robinson v. State

On October 19, 2014, in the District Court of Maryland, sitting in Baltimore City, the State, Respondent, charged Robinson with possession of oxycodone, possession of at least ten grams of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. The case was transferred to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. In the circuit court, Robinson filed "Omnibus Pre–Trial Defense Motions," which included, among other things, a motion to suppress all evidence that law enforcement had allegedly illegally seized from Robinson's vehicle.

On March 16, 2015, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion to suppress. The only witness at the hearing was Officer Steven A. Vinias of the Baltimore Police Department. As a witness for the State, Officer Vinias testified that he was familiar with the odor of marijuana, and was able to distinguish the odor of fresh marijuana from the odor of burnt marijuana. On October 18, 2014, Officer Vinias was driving in the 3100 block of Oakfield Avenue in Baltimore. Sergeant Luis Ruiz was a passenger in the law enforcement vehicle. Officer Vinias saw Robinson leaning against a Nissan Maxima, which was the only vehicle on that side of Oakfield Avenue. Officer Vinias noticed an overwhelming smell of fresh marijuana. Officer Vinias stopped, and he and Sergeant Ruiz exited and approached Robinson, who was within arm's length of the Nissan at the time. Robinson made a movement toward his waistband, and Sergeant Ruiz detained Robinson. Once Robinson was detained, Officer Vinias could tell that the smell of marijuana was coming from the Nissan. In response to questions by Officer Vinias, Robinson said that he had been driving the Nissan, and that there was marijuana in the Nissan. Officer Vinias searched the Nissan and seized sixteen small bags of marijuana and one oxycodone pill. At the time of the seizure, Officer Vinias estimated that the marijuana weighed more than ten grams. On cross-examination, Officer Vinias stated that the strength of the odor of marijuana and the amount of marijuana are not always synonymous.

After Officer Vinias's testimony, the circuit court heard argument from the parties. Robinson's counsel contended that a law enforcement officer lacks probable cause to search a vehicle for marijuana unless the law enforcement officer has reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contains more than ten grams of marijuana. The State argued that nothing had changed as a result of the amendment to the marijuana statute with respect to a law enforcement officer's ability to search a vehicle based on the odor of marijuana. After hearing the parties' arguments, the circuit court denied the motion to suppress without making any findings of fact.

The parties agreed that Robinson would be tried on an agreed statement of facts only as to the charge of possession of at least ten grams of marijuana. Robinson's counsel engaged in a waiver colloquy with Robinson, who waived the right to a trial. The prosecutor read a statement of facts, to which Robinson's counsel agreed. The circuit court found Robinson guilty of possession of at least ten grams of marijuana and sentenced him to time served. The docket entries reflect that the other two charges, possession of oxycodone and possession of drug paraphernalia, were closed.

On March 26, 2015, Robinson noted an appeal. In an unreported opinion dated April 29, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment, holding that, despite the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, marijuana remains contraband, and its odor provides probable cause to search a vehicle.

On June 14, 2016, Robinson petitioned for a writ of certiorari , raising the following two issues:

1. When an officer detects an "overwhelming smell" of "fresh marijuana" coming from a car, does he have probable cause to search the car in light of the fact that possession of a less than ten grams of marijuana is now a "civil offense" punishable only by a
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