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Can police search your car for marijuana at a traffic stop?

The state of Georgia recently passed a "decriminalization" bill. There are many misconceptions surrounding this bill, with some local residents assuming marijuana is now legal in the state. In actuality, the bill simply decreases some of the penalties for marijuana possession. For instance, a person found with less than one ounce of marijuana cannot go to jail or face a fine greater than $75.

Protections exist to prevent the police from unlawfully searching a person's car. To begin with, the police need to have a justifiable reason to pull a driver over in the first place. However, even if the cop pulls over someone for speeding, that does not automatically give him or her the right to search a car for marijuana; a warrant needs to be present. However, a cop can search the vehicle if probable cause exists. 

Plain view

If a person has marijuana in plain view of the officer, then the cop can issue a fine or take the person to jail depending on the amount of marijuana present. "Plain view" means the officer can see it readily even from the outside of the car. The officer cannot open the glove box or the trunk to find the substance. 

Probable cause

Even when marijuana is not readily visible, the cops can search a car if there is sufficient evidence to suggest marijuana is present. For example, if the cop smells weed, then that may serve as justification. Additionally, if the driver acts in a strange manner that suggests he or she is under the influence of drugs or substances of any kind, then a vehicle search may be in order. 

Consent

Some officers will simply ask the driver if they can search through the vehicle, and an astounding number of people actually agree. Unless the officer has a warrant or one of the above criteria is present, you do not have to give permission. Even if you believe nothing illegal is present in your car, you should still exercise your rights. Additionally, you never know when a friend may have left something behind in your car.

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