SJC rules local police can use observations to make drugged driving arrests


BOSTON — It's been one of the most divisive and controversial questions related to legalizing marijuana in the state.

While its easy for police officers to stop drunk drivers and measure the alcohol levels in their breath as well as conduct field sobriety tests, the question remains: what about driving under the influence of marijuana?

Now that it's legal in the state, a whole new slew of concerns has been raised when it comes to public safety related to cannabis use, particularly when it relates to road safety.

On Monday, the state's highest court ruled that people can now be arrested on drugged driving charges based solely on a police officer's observations.

According to the SJC, if, based on observation, there are clear signs of impairment to the driver and the car smells like pot, police have the right to place you under arrest.

The court defends that, since there is no roadside test that can be used to determine if someone is driving under the influence of marijuana, officers must use their best judgement.

Because marijuana affects people differently, officers are advised to take into consideration a variety of factors before making a decision on whether to arrest someone for drugged driving.

The ruling comes after a case involving Mark J. Davis, a man who State Police arrested back in 2015 on the Mass Pike for drugged driving after he was seen driving erratically and at a high speed.

When the trooper pulled him over, he noticed a "strong odor of burnt marijuana and an odor of fresh marijuana." There were two other people in the car and Davis also smelled like pot.

According to records, State Police impounded and searched Davis' car and found cocaine, oxycodone and a handgun.

Davis was acquitted by the jury of drugged driving and gun possession charges, but was found guilty of drug possession.

He then appealed his arrest by questioning the lawfulness of the search of his car after he was arrested, arguing troopers had no probable cause to arrest him for driving under the influence of cannabis and, therefore, the search and seizure of his vehicle was unlwaful.

However, the SJC argued that troopers were fully in the right to arrest Davis for drugged driving based on their observations during the traffic stop.

Not only did troopers notice Davis smelled like marijuana but that he also had "red and glassy eyes" and had a hard time keeping his eyes opened, the police report shows. The trooper also noticed Davis had problems focusing and following "simple directions", which indicated signs of impairment.

“The defendant told the officer that he had smoked marijuana earlier that day, before he left to drive to Somerville,” according to the ruling.

The court wrote "that it is often difficult to detect marijuana impairment" based on how "the effects of marijuana consumption vary greatly amongst individuals."

The ruling also states there are no field sobriety tests used to determine drug impariment. The SJC also ruled State Police were justified in searching Davis' car without a warrant under an automoblie warrant exception.

It was through searching Davis' car that troopers were able to find the gun and the drugs.

While he was acquitted of his drugged driving and gun possession charges, Davis was still found guilty of drug possession because the SJC ruled the initial drugged driving arrest, which led to the search, was justified.

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