Virginia Bills Preventing Cannabis Smell As A Justification for Vehicle Search Go To Governor

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Both Virginia’s House and Senate have passed bills that prevent law enforcement from using the smell of cannabis to search Virginians’ vehicles. House Bill 5058 and Senate Bill 5029 now go to Virginia governor Ralph Northam to sign. Cops continue to use the smell of cannabis—as well as false claims by police that they smell cannabis—as a vital investigative tool frequently used to profile people and work around the fourth amendment.

HB 5058 and SB 5029 come out of Virginia’s special legislative session, which began in August and has been framed as a referendum on the racist war on drugs and racist policing with a focus on building on cannabis decriminalization which went into effect on July 1. Jenn Michelle Pedini of Virginia National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws (NORML) praised the bills passing but stressed the cannabis legalization (something Governor Northam has not supported in the same way that he support decriminalization) is the most significant step forward for reducing racist policing of cannabis: “While this will certainly decrease non-essential interactions between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding Virginians, it is only by legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults that the Commonwealth can end its failed experiment with prohibition and begin repairing the decades of damage,” Pedini said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised these bills back when they were first introduced, tweeting, “Once police pull you over, they can use the smell of marijuana as a pretext to search your car. Sadly, Black Virginians know this problem all too well.” And earlier this month, the ACLU encouraged Governor Northam to sign these bills into law.

As if to highlight Pedini, the ACLU, and many other Virginians’ concerns about the urgency for cannabis reform to limit police interactions, The Washington Post last week reported on a shocking cannabis-related arrest from 2019. “Invoking George Floyd, Va. prosecutor rebukes police over violent stop of Black driver” by Justin Jouvenal describes the May 5, 2019 stop of Michael Wyche, captured on police body worn camera. 

Wyche was stopped for speeding and the officer who stopped him, Jon Graham claimed he spotted a tiny bit of cannabis “flakes” in Wyche’s vehicle. Wyche refused to let Graham search his SUV and attempted to roll his window up. Then, the Post writes, “Officer Jon Graham grabbed him and punched him repeatedly in the face before he and another officer pulled Wyche from the vehicle and pinned him to the pavement.”

Wyche was charged with felony assault on an officer and obstruction of justice. He was not charged for the minuscule amount of cannabis the cop claimed he noticed. It should be noted that incredibly small amounts of cannabis—or what is claimed to be cannabis—have been often used to justify searches of vehicles. The Outlaw Report has heard of searches where police claim blades of grass on the floor of a vehicle or miscellaneous crumbs that don’t even look like cannabis possibly drugs and are then used by police to justify a search.

As The Post points out, this arrest is also notable because it was a prosecutor who called attention to the questionable police stop. Virginia prosecutor Buja Biberaj noted that Officer Graham’s version of events was inconsistent and in an email about the case, invoked the police killing of George Floyd. 

“We were concerned that the events of this case could and would fracture the trust our community has for our justice system,” Biberaj wrote in an email, according to the Post. “This is a case that will provide our law enforcement partners the opportunity to use to educate their members, provide additional training, and ensure that the events resulting in the death of George Floyd never occur in Loudoun County.”

Wyche’s charges have been dropped, and as the Post reports, “after the judge dismissed the charge against him, he leaped in the air in the courtroom and clicked his heels together.”

Image by Lukasz Stefanski / via Shutterstock

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