Marijuana In Arizona: Officer Discretion Comes Into Question

Arizona may have passed medical marijuana laws in 2010 and have recreational marijuana on the ballot this November, but that doesn’t mean law enforcement officers are going to be lax with marijuana cases. In July, the Arizona Supreme Court made a significant ruling, stating that police can still use the odor of marijuana as probable cause to pull an individual over. Chief Supreme Court Justice Scott Bales, the judge who made the ruling, made it crystal clear that the only permissible uses of marijuana are the specific circumstances dictated by the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.

Prior to Justice Bales’ decision, the Court of Appeals issued a ruling in 2015 stating that the smell of marijuana no longer justified probable cause. With Justice Bales’ overruling of the appeals court’s decision, law enforcement officers will have the freedom to pull individuals over based on the presence of the odor of marijuana. This ruling only underscores the existing tensions in Arizona.

Controversies regarding racial profiling in Arizona have left the state a recipient of vast criticism. Concerns for years about officers in Arizona attempting to target undocumented immigrants has been and remains a topic of discussion. The ruling made by Justice Bales allows law enforcement officers greater discretion in determining when to pull an individual over, as it extends to premises and vehicles.

The law does specify that state and local law enforcement officers are only required to attempt to determine the immigration status of a person while in the process of a lawful stop, detention or arrest.

Arizona’s anti-immigration law requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” they are illegally in the United States. Of course, one of the main criticisms of the law is that law enforcement officers are put in a position where they must identify undocumented immigrants. Any reasonable person may ask how officers are able to perform that job function without racially profiling an individual based on their appearance or the type of vehicle they’re driving. Essentially, the law gives officers the authority to ask someone for their identification papers if they suspect the individual may be undocumented. The law fails to identify though, what specific methods an officer may use in determining whether an individual is undocumented or not.

The law does specify that state and local law enforcement officers are only required to attempt to determine the immigration status of a person while in the process of a lawful stop, detention or arrest. Certainly it seems reasonable that one’s immigration status might be up for question if they are arrested; however, to allow that judgment during lawful stops encourages officers to be on the lookout for certain drivers. Officers have the ability to pull anyone over when there is suspicion that a law is being violated. As the law extends to traffic stops, concerns exist that officers may use traffic infractions and violations as a way to legitimately pull an individual over, only to question the status of their immigration.

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