probable cause stops biggest change with pot law


Less than a week before the state’s new recreational marijuana law goes into effect, some local police officials are digging deeper into the language of the law with a view to issuing new guidelines to the law. the intention of their officers, including how and when to carry out roadside checks and searches. .

As of July 1, people 21 years of age and over can own or consume up to 1.5 ounces of “cannabis plant material” and have up to 5 ounces of the substance in a locked container inside their home. ‘a vehicle or a house.

No more probable cause

Plainfield Police Department deputy chief William Wolfburg said he and other supervisors were reviewing the new 295-page law in anticipation of passing relevant information to patrols and other officers.

“The biggest change for us is the probable cause,” Wolfburg said in a telephone interview. “Just noticing the smell of marijuana will not be enough to trigger a stop and search of a vehicle under the new law.

Prior to July 1, Connecticut Police could conduct a warrantless search of an individual’s person or vehicle if they allegedly smelled marijuana, but the new law eliminates such probable cause-based searches. And while it will always be illegal to smoke or ingest marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, suspicion of such actions will not be enough to stop a driver and conduct a search.

In recent years, as more recreational marijuana laws are passed across the country – Connecticut is the 19th of its kind – judges from Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania and other states have ruled several times the smell of marijuana is not sufficient to warrant a warrantless vehicle search.

“We need another reason for a stop and search in the future, such as a disability or evidence of a crime in plain sight,” Wolfburg said. “And that applies to the use of police dogs.”

Wolfburg said the department’s drug sniffer dog Vail would no longer be used during traffic stops because the animal’s alert after an “open sniff” from a vehicle does not appear. no different for soon-to-be legal marijuana than when K-9 is supposed to detect banned narcotics.

“Vail will still be deployed, but in a different capacity,” Wolfburg said. “It’s about adapting to the climate of society.

Wolfburg said past roadside checks and searches related to alleged possession of marijuana have led to drivers being charged with narcotics, weapons and other crimes and have enabled officers to identify wanted persons.

“These judgments have peeled the onion in a way on other crimes,” he said. “But the justice system had not given a high priority to prosecuting crimes involving small amounts of marijuana for some time now.”

Lawyer George Flores, who heads the Windham Judicial Public Defender’s Office, said he had seen “almost no” defendants appear at his Danielson Superior Court office over the years, with only minor marijuana charges to resolve.

“And I don’t think there is a single person in the state incarcerated for such a charge,” he said. “It becomes serious when a person is arrested on suspicion of using or possessing marijuana and a search also reveals 200 bags of fentanyl or a gun.”

After:Governor Lamont will sign a bill legalizing marijuana. Here’s what you need to know.

On the court side, the new law imposes fines – no jail time possible – for many marijuana-related possession crimes, although anyone found guilty of providing cannabis to a pet on or after October 1 can be punished under Class C misdemeanor standards up to three months in jail and a $ 500 fine.

Police are still reviewing the new law

Putnam Police Chief Chris Ferace said he was also reviewing the new law and would issue a staff training newsletter with relevant information.

“From our perspective, it’s easier not to enforce something than to make something illegal,” he said. “If after July 1 someone legally possesses marijuana, that won’t be a problem. We will adapt accordingly to this new law.

Ferace said the number of arrests in the department’s special service district jurisdiction for low-level weed possession varies from month to month.

“It comes and goes, sometimes with a couple a month and sometimes more,” he said. “It really depended on where the arrest was made and who was charged. And in the last 15 months, during COVID, we haven’t had a lot of these kinds of arrests just because, for safety’s sake, we weren’t making as many traffic stops. “

After:Norwich-area lawmakers worried about enactment of Connecticut’s legalized pot bill

As in Plainfield, the Putnam Department has a K-9 certified for drug detection. Ferace said he expects advice on the use of the animal to come from state police, who certify and maintain accreditation for these animals.

“And while we can’t use the marijuana scent alert dog as a probable cause to search a vehicle or person, we can use the K-9 as part of a search warrant.”

Norwich Police Chief Patrick Daley said this week there were too many “unknowns” right now to say how his department would adjust to the new law. He said he would be in a better position on the first anniversary of the law to talk about any potential changes in officer training and the use of dogs by police.

In Killingly, city police, which are overseen by the D-Troop barracks, will follow all instructions from state police regarding marijuana law enforcement, the city manager said. Mary Calorio.

“We have a K-9 unit, but it is used to track missing persons and not for road checks,” Calorio said.

Massachusetts Police Adapt to Legal Marijuana

About half an hour north of Putnam, 20 officers serve the town of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, Bay State voters in 2016 passed a voting initiative legalizing recreational use of marijuana, a decision that sparked many of the same types of policing changes their Connecticut is facing. counterparts.

Police Chief Earl Dessert, a veteran of law enforcement for more than two decades – 14 in Sturbridge – said the change in law had not led to an increase in crime.

“We noticed a slight increase in operations under the influence of drug arrests, but other than that it didn’t have much impact,” he said. “Marijuana-related arrests have dropped dramatically and we have stopped training our K-9s to detect marijuana. “

After:Connecticut to legalize marijuana after Senate passage

Dessert said his officers had received amended “exit orders” or instructions on how and when a driver is asked to leave an emergency vehicle by police. He said such orders can no longer be based on the smell of marijuana.

“But we can ask a driver to get out of a vehicle to do a field sobriety test,” he said. “All of our officers have also completed advanced impaired driving law enforcement training. Officers were already aware of the signs of possible driver drunkenness, which gave them a better idea of ​​how to identify someone who can drive under the influence of marijuana.

John Penney can be reached at [email protected] or (860) 857-6965

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