By Lauren D. Emery

On April 10, 2015, in United States v. Anthony Champion, an unpublished criminal opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling of the district court.

Traffic Stop Results in Discovery of Stolen Weapons

On January 13, 2013, a Virginia State Trooper pulled over Anthony Champion after witnessing him speeding and violating a Virginia law against having dangling objects which obstruct a driver’s view of the roadway. Rather than immediately pull over, Champion drove erratically and, after finally pulling over, exited the vehicle and one of his passengers moved into the driver’s seat.  When the trooper approached the car, Champion admitted he did not have a license and the trooper smelled a “‘fairly strong’ odor of marijuana.”  At this point the trooper requested additional backup and then conducted a search of the vehicle, including the trunk.  During the search of the trunk, the troopers found nine stolen weapons in a gym bag.

Does Marijuana Odor Give Probable Cause to Search a Car’s Trunk?

Champion appealed his conviction for transporting stolen firearms which were found in the  trunk of the car he was driving.  Specifically, he argued that the evidence of the weapons in the trunk should have been suppressed at trial because “the mere odor of burnt marijuana in the passenger compartment is insufficient to establish probable cause to search the trunk of a car.”

Totality of the Circumstances Suggests Trooper had Probable Cause to Search Trunk

In its opinion, the Fourth Circuit declined to decide whether the smell of marijuana in the passenger compartment of a car is ever sufficient on its own to give probable cause to search a vehicle’s trunk–an issue on which the circuit courts appear to be split.  Instead, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court considered a totality of the circumstances rather than relying solely upon the odor of marijuana.  The factors suggesting the troopers had probable cause included: the strong odor of marijuana; the fact that when questioned about whether there was contraband in the car, Champion replied “none that I know of”; his passengers’ confessions that they had been smoking marijuana while in the vehicle; and the fact that the occupants gave inconsistent statements regarding their destination.   All of these factors suggested the occupants of the vehicle were involved in some criminal activity and as such there was probable cause to search the trunk.

Fourth Circuit Affirms District Court Judgment

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Champion’s motion to suppress the firearms discovered in the trunk because they were found as a result of a lawful search of the vehicle.