by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director
NORML filed an “amicus curiae” brief with the state supreme appellate court on Friday, November 22, urging the court to enforce the limits on police searches set by 2008′s voter-initiative state decriminalization law, which eliminating police searches and arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Attorneys Michael Cutler of Northampton and Steven Epstein of Georgetown authored the brief.
In this case a Boston judge initially ruled a 2011 police search — based entirely on the smell of unburnt marijuana — violated the “decriminalization” law which made possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction subject only to a fine, thereby ending police authority to search or arrest the possessor. The state appealed.
Earlier in 2011 the state supreme court ruled, in a case in which NORML also filed an amicus brief, that police searches based only on the odor of burnt marijuana were now illegal. The court reasoned that smell alone did not establish probable cause to believe a criminal amount (more than an ounce) was present, so police had no power to search or arrest.
NORML asks the court to reject the Boston prosecutor’s claim that federal prohibition — which allows arrest and imprisonment for any amount of cannabis under federal law — trumps the state decriminalization law and allows police to ignore state law and use evidence from smell-based searches in state courts.
NORML argues that state prosecutors and police must obey state law and state appellate court rulings under the state constitution’s separation of powers doctrine, requiring the executive branch to obey the legislative branch’s laws and the judicial branch’s limits on police conduct under state law and the state’s constitution.
Finally, NORML argues that the state prosecutor’s position violates fundamental principles of Federalism, which limit federal “preemption” of state law only where state law “positively conflicts” with federal law. Since the August 2013 federal Justice Department Guidance memo to federal prosecutors nationwide, recommending no interference with state laws legalizing marijuana in a responsible manner, no such conflict exists between federal and state authority.
Oral argument in the case of Commonwealth v. Craan is scheduled for early February, with a decision possible by June 2014.