The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that finding marijuana stems in a trash bag does not permit the police to search the house for evidence of a crime. From a legal standpoint this case has interesting implications on when, where, and what police can search. From a more practical perspective, it shows the courts, along with the majority of America, are accepting that marijuana is not a dangerous substance.
The case, United State v. Tyrone Lyles, saw Mr. Lyles accused of possessing firearms as a convicted felon. The police of Prince George County (in Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C.) were investigating Mr. Lyles in an unrelated case. They searched four trash bags on a curb near his house and found three marijuana stems. Based on the marijuana stems, the police obtained a search warrant for Mr. Lyle’s house. In the application for the search warrant the police stated they had found the marijuana stems, rolling papers and based on this believed that there were “controlled dangerous substances, Marijuana, and handguns being stored, used and/or sold” at Mr. Lyles home.
Based on this information, the police were granted a broad warrant and allowed to search Mr. Lyles home in total. The police, during the search, found four handguns, ammunition, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia, in Mr. Lyle’s house. Mr. Lyle asked that the evidence found in his home be suppressed because there was not sufficient evidence to search his home based on the discovery of three marijuana stems in his trash.
The Fourth Circuit agreed. The court, in its decision, first reiterated the fact that police have the right to search trash that that has been left at the curb and that evidence found in trash can be used to support a warrant to search other premises. The Fourth Circuit recognized, that while the police can search trash, that there is limitations to what can be presumed from the discovery of the evidence in the trash. Focusing on the facts from Mr. Lyles’s case, the Fourth Circuit determined there was simply too little marijuana found in the trash to presume that Mr. Lyle had more marijuana in his home. The Fourth Circuit agreed with Mr. Lyles that the tiny quantity of discarded residue gave no indication of how long ago marijuana may have been consumed in Mr. Lyle’s home.
So what does this mean? The police used marijuana as an excuse to search Mr. Lyle’s house for evidence of crimes related to marijuana, money laundering, and hand guns. The Fourth Circuit essentially said the police cannot presume that someone has committed crimes related to controlled substances or to other crimes when a small amount of the substance has been found in the trash. This is important because in other cases, the Fourth Circuit has determined that evidence of a controlled substance in someone’s trash is sufficient for a warrant to search that person’s house. Perhaps the distinction here is that such a small amount was found, or perhaps it is evidence that the federal courts are no longer considering marijuana a dangerous drug that is evidence of other crimes (what if they had found a small amount of heroin?).
It will be interesting to see if any of the other federal circuits follow the Fourth Circuit’s helpful precedent, or if prosecutors decide to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court.