Odor of marijuana justified automobile exception search of vehicle


Cerissa Lynette Sanders was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). The district court sentenced her to 21 months of imprisonment and three years of supervised release. Sanders appeals the district court’s denial of her motion to suppress the firearm that was found during a search of her vehicle. (No other facts provided)


First, Sanders contests the legality of the traffic stop that occurred prior to the search of her vehicle. A traffic stop is only justified at its inception if the officer had an objectively reasonable suspicion that some sort of illegal activity occurred, or was about to occur, before stopping the vehicle. See Lopez-Moreno. In general, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. See SCOTUS Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Relevant here, Texas law provides that a driver facing only a steady red signal shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, and only after stopping, standing, and yielding may the driver turn right. Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 544.007(d)(1). The district court found that Sanders committed a traffic violation, which established probable cause for the seizure.

The district court based its conclusion on one officer’s unequivocal testimony that he observed Sanders’s car fail to stop at the designated point before entering the marked crosswalk at the red light in question. Furthermore, the district court found that this testimony was consistent with the “incident report” and “photograph evidence.” Finally, although recognizing Sanders’s competing version of events, the district court concluded that it found the officer’s testimony more credible. Based on these factual determinations, the district court held the detectives had probable cause to believe that Sanders violated the Texas Transportation Code and were justified in initiating the traffic stop.

Next, Sanders contests the legality of the search of her vehicle and the bag in which the firearm at issue was discovered. A warrantless search is presumptively unreasonable unless the circumstances fall under an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. See Guzman. If law enforcement officials have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains contraband, a warrantless search is permitted under the automobile exception. See Fields. Moreover, this belief, when supported by probable cause, justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search. See SCOTUS California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991).

Relevant here, the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle constitutes the requisite probable cause. See Moore and Ibarra-Sanchez. Because the detective testified that he smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle, and this was corroborated by the body camera video, the detectives had probable cause to search the vehicle and the bag. Because the odor of marijuana provided the necessary probable cause for the search, the Court need not address whether the officers performed a lawful inventory search.

The judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.