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State v. Alexandre

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

October 4, 2016

STATE OF MAINE
v.
DAVID ALEXANDRE Defendant

          ORDER ON MOTION TO SUPPRESS

          E. Mary Kelly, Judge

         A hearing was held on Defendant's Motion to Suppress on September 20, 2016. Assistant District Attorney Carlos Diaz appeared on behalf of the State. Attorney Eric Thistle appeared on behalf of Defendant. The court heard testimony from Maine State Trooper Anthony Keim and admitted several exhibits into evidence, including a video recording of the traffic stop leading to Defendant's arrest.

         Defendant's motion raises an issue of first impression: the effect of Maine's statutory authorization of medical marijuana[1] on the law governing vehicle searches. Having considered the evidence and counsel's oral argument, the court's findings and conclusions are as follows:

         Trooper Keim testified that he was patrolling the highway in the Scarborough area when he noticed an SUV rapidly approaching in the right lane. Without signaling, the SUV abruptly crossed into the middle lane and then into the left lane, squeezing between two cars, and crowding the car in front so that there was less than a car-length between them. Radar showed the SUV to be traveling at 77-78 mph and accelerating up to 86 mph. Trooper Keim pulled the SUV over and approached the passenger side to speak with the vehicle's only occupant, the driver, identified as Defendant David Alexandre. Trooper Keim testified that he smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the SUV's interior, and observed a jar on the passenger floor that appeared to contain marijuana. Asked by Trooper Keim "when was the last time you smoked marijuana?" Defendant answered, "earlier this afternoon." Noticing that Defendant's "facial expressions looked droopy, tired, " Trooper Keim remarked "It looks like you've been smoking more recently by looking at you." Defendant then showed the Trooper his medical marijuana authorization card, a copy of which was admitted as State's Exhibit 2. Asked "do you have more marijuana in the car?" Defendant answered "yes, a little bit, in jars."

         Trooper Keim did a pat-down search of Defendant, during which Defendant told him that he had smoked marijuana "earlier that morning." A search of the SUV's followed, during which Trooper Keim found marijuana in excess of the amount authorized by Defendant's medical marijuana card.

         Attorney Thistle argued on behalf of Defendant that Trooper Keim had no legitimate basis for searching Defendant's vehicle once he was shown Defendant's medical marijuana card. According to this line of argument, because Defendant was authorized to have up to 2.5 ounces (approximately 70 grams) of prepared marijuana, [2] Trooper Keim, having observed only a meager 8.4 grams on the passenger side floor, had no basis for believing that Defendant had contraband in his vehicle, such that the search violated Defendant's constitutional rights, requiring suppression of the evidence seized.

         The court's analysis starts with the automobile exception, which the Law Court, citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions, has recognized as an exception to the warrant requirement. Pursuant to the automobile exception, "the existence of probable cause justifies a warrantless seizure and reasonable search of a motor vehicle irrespective of the existence of exigent circumstances." See, e.g., State v. Ireland, 1998 ME 35, ¶ 7, 706 A.2d 597 (citing, among others, U.S. v. Infante- Ruiz, 13 F.3d 498, 502 (1st Cir. 1994) ("It is now established that if the police have probable cause to believe that either a vehicle or a container within a vehicle contains contraband, evidence of crime, of other matter that may lawfully be seized, no Fourth Amendment violation occurs ....")).

         While acknowledging the automobile exception, Attorney Thistle argues that the search of Defendant's vehicle does not fall within the exception because Defendant's possession of a medical marijuana card negates any suggestion of probable cause.

         The Maine Law Court has not addressed Defendant's argument. Because of the absence of Maine precedent, ADA Diaz directed the court's attention to cases from California. In People v. Strasburg, 56 Cal.Rptr.3d 306, for example, the court reasoned:

Defendant contends that because he immediately produced a doctor's prescription for marijuana, thus identifying himself as a qualified patient under the Act, Deputy Mosely was made aware that defendant could possess up to eight ounces of marijuana - and thus had no grounds to detain him, frisk him, or search his car...
Under the facts and circumstances of this case, Deputy Mosely had probable cause to search defendant's car for marijuana after he smelled the odor of marijuana. Defendant admitted smoking marijuana, and the deputy sheriff saw another bag of marijuana in the car after defendant handed him one. Armed with the knowledge that there was marijuana in the car, "a person of ordinary caution would conscientiously entertain a strong suspicion that even if defendant makes only personal use of the marijuana found in the passenger area, he might stash additional quantities for future use in other parts of the vehicle, including the trunk."
The fact that defendant had a medical marijuana prescription, and could lawfully possess an amount of marijuana greater than Deputy Mosely initially found, does not detract from the officer's probable cause. [T]he Act provides a limited immunity - not a shield from reasonable investigation.

Id. at 310-11 (internal citations omitted). See also People v. Waxier, 168 Cal.Rptr.3d 822:

That California has decriminalized medicinal marijuana in some situations and has reduced the punishment associated with possession of up to an ounce of marijuana does not bar a law enforcement officer form conducting a search pursuant to the automobile exception. Here, Deputy Griffin was entitled to investigate to determine whether appellant possessed marijuana for personal medical needs and to determine whether he adhered to the CUA's limits on possession. "Otherwise, every qualified patient would be free to violate the intent of the medical marijuana pro gram... and deal marijuana from his car with complete freedom from any reasonable search".""" Deputy" Griffin testified "at the preliminary hearing that people often possess more marijuana than allowed under the CUA and "hide" additional quantities of marijuana in their vehicles. It is well settled that even if a defendant ...

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