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Mass. Court Limits Police In Small Marijuana Cases

The highest court in Massachusetts has ruled that the odor of burnt marijuana is not enough for police to suspect criminal activity and order a person to get out of a car under a state law that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court Tuesday referred to a 2008 ballot question in which voters agreed to make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil rather than a criminal violation.

The court found that voters made it clear they wanted people charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana treated differently than those charged with serious drug crimes.

The case stems from a 2009 arrest of a passenger inside a parked car in Boston. Police had stopped because the car was blocking a fire hydrant. When officers got a whiff of burnt marijuana from inside the vehicle they ordered the passenger out of the car and then found him with crack cocaine.

The SJC said the change in the law affects how police behave in the field. Wayne Sampson, of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, says the ruling makes it more difficult for police officers to do their jobs on the street.

"Prior to this decision, the law was clearly established in Massachusetts, that the odor of marijuana would be sufficient probable cause for officers to conduct further review," Simpson said. "But this absolutely changes the established law in the commonwealth."

Sampson says officers will need to be trained on how to conduct initial investigations in light of the ruling.

With reporting from The Associated Press and WBUR's Steve Brown.

This program aired on April 19, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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