These pot searches by police don't pass the smell test

Published June 2, 2014

So you've got a big night planned with your friends.

You head to Ybor City in your fancy, tricked-out pickup truck and spend a few hours listening to music and soaking up the atmosphere.

All's well until you're ready to head home, and that's when you discover that someone broke into your locked truck and ransacked the interior.

You absolutely need to call the cops, right?

Just one problem.

It was a cop who broke into your truck.

Not some off-duty renegade or cop-gone-bad. This officer was part of a regular canine unit on patrol. The dog indicated it had picked up a marijuana scent from the passenger's side, and the officer used an unlocking tool to get into the truck.

When no marijuana was found, the officer wrote a note about what had happened and left it inside the truck.

This is all completely legal.

And just a little scary.

Police have been given authority by the U.S. Supreme Court to conduct vehicle searches without warrants, based on a trained dog's alert.

The federal case originated in the Florida Panhandle and was thrown out by the state Supreme Court before it was unanimously overturned in Washington last year.

So now we are left with stories such as the one described above involving Matthew Heller's truck in Ybor City in February. Tampa police acknowledge the basic facts of the incident, although there is a slight dispute about the aftermath.

Heller's attorney, Dominic Fariello, said there was minor damage inside the truck — apparently, some electronic equipment no longer works correctly — and said he sent a letter to Tampa police April 2 asking for an incident report.

A TPD spokeswoman said police have no record of any requests other than a call from Heller about 10 days ago. She said Heller was more concerned about the legality of the search and did not mention any damage to the truck.

But let's forget, for now, the possibility of damage and focus on the law itself.

Isn't it a little creepy to think that police can break into a vehicle based on a dog's signal? And not for a potentially dangerous bomb-sniffing case, but for a possible marijuana bust?

The scent of marijuana is often used by law enforcement as a justification for searches. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had a number of cases challenged in 2012 because detectives obtained warrants to search homes based on dubious claims of smelling marijuana from the sidewalk. A few weeks ago, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews threw out a drug case because he found that a St. Petersburg police officer's claim of smelling marijuana had stretched the limits of believability.

The attorney in Heller's case wonders whether his client was singled out because his truck is raised high off the ground, with a custom paint job and other pricey features.

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"It sounds like they saw this vehicle and said, 'There's probably drugs in there. Let's go find them,' " Fariello said. "It's almost like they profiled his truck. I like to call it vehicular discrimination."

A police officer's job is not easy. Cops are often dealing with the most unhinged, unscrupulous and uncaring people in our midst. And there are times when extraordinary measures must be taken in the name of public safety.

But is it worth trampling the Constitution to investigate a suspected pot smoker?