Given the fact that Officer Massie smelled a strong odor of marijuana, he was justified under the circumstances to prolong the detention.

State v. Letts

2020 – Ohio – 6643

Second District Appellate Court

Clark County, Ohio

December 11, 2020

On Tuesday December 18, 2018, Springfield, Ohio Police Officer Justin Massie observed a red Chrysler Sebring automobile coming south on Clifton Avenue in Springfield Ohio. Officer Massie could see from the vehicle’s side that it had heavily tinted windows on the front, but he could not see either the driver or how many passengers were in the automobile. After the vehicle turned westbound onto Leffel Lane, it then turned into a two star hotel at 2 West Leffel Lane, Springfield, Ohio.  Officer Massie initiated a traffic stop for unlawful tinted windows.

Officer Justin Massie stopped a car Mr. Eric Letts was a passenger in this parking lot at 2 West Leffel Lane in Springfield, Ohio.

Immediately after the stop occurred, the back-passenger door opened and a male, later identified as Mr. Eric Letts Jr. stepped out. Officer Massie told Mr. Letts to “hang on a minute,” and Mr. Letts then stepped back into the vehicle. That “minute” would eventually become a six years.  Officer Massie then approached the driver’s side, made contact with the driver, and told him the reason for the stop. At that time, the driver volunteered the information that he did not have a valid driver’s license. This would not be the last criminal behavior identified on this traffic stop.

As Officer Massie approached the vehicle, he could smell the strong odor of burnt marijuana, and asked the occupants of the vehicle if they still had any raw marijuana. After they said they did not, Officer Massie asked if he could search the vehicle. All the occupants consented to a search. There were three occupants in the vehicle, including the driver.

As Officer Massie awaited backup, he obtained the occupants information, returned to his cruiser and completed warrant checks. By the time Officer Massie finished the warrant checks and removed the driver from the vehicle, Sgt. James Byron had arrived on the scene.

At that point, Officer Massie asked Mr. Letts to step out of the car. Officer Massie asked for consent from Mr. Letts to pat him down and Mr. Letts said that was fine. Mr. Letts then began removing a cigarette pack and some other property from his pocket. At this time, Officer Massie told Mr. Letts that he would conduct the patdown, and Mr. Letts again said that was fine.

While patting Mr. Letts down, Officer Massie found brass knuckles and a baggie of marijuana. During an inventory search of the car, Officer Massie also found a digital scale in the map pocket right behind the front passenger seat. Officer Massie did not remove the scale at that time because there was no residue on it.

Officer Massie did not find any other contraband in the vehicle. At that point, he went back to Mr. Letts because he had to inventory the brass knuckles and the marijuana. Officer Massie asked Mr. Letts for identification so he could do a property receipt. He then asked Mr. Letts if anything was in the cigarette pack. Mr. Letts consented to a search of the cigarette pack, and Officer Massie saw a cellophane baggie with white powder inside the pack. 

After Officer Massie placed Mr. Letts in custody, he read Miranda rights to Mr. Letts. Mr. Letts stated that he understood his rights. Officer Massie then asked what the product was and if it were “cut.” Mr. Letts responded that it was just cut. Between the time Mr. Letts was handcuffed and the time he and Officer Massie left the scene, Mr. Letts made additional statements. They discussed Letts’s comment about the fact that the product was cut, and Officer Massie asked if any product would be in the baggie. Mr. Letts said there may be a little bit of product and identified the substance in the bag as fentanyl.

Officer Massie did not know how long the car had been stopped by the time he had filled out his paperwork and gotten the arrest materials put together. After that point, he used a light to check the front window tint and found it was less than 10%. The windows immediately to the right and left of the driver were 50% tinted. Under Ohio law, the front two windows have to allow 50% light transmission. The tint of the back window or back passenger side windows does not matter. The sole reason for the stop was due to the window tint. Based on what Officer Massie found, he did not issue a citation for the window tint.

Officer Massie charged Mr. Letts with aggravated possession of drugs.  During their conversation, Letts had also confessed to having property that was not in his name and talked about how he got and used a supplemental WIC card that he purchased for a certain amount of money.  In essence Mr. Letts was chock full of probable cause.

Mr. Letts filed a Motion to Suppress based on an unreasonably long detention.  The trial court denied the motion and Mr. Letts plead guilty.  He was sentenced to six years in prison and filed an appeal.  The Second District Appellate Court held “Given the fact that Officer Massie smelled a strong odor of marijuana, he was justified under the circumstances to prolong the detention.”.

Information for this case was obtained from State v. Letts, 2020 – Ohio – 6643.

This case was issued by the Ohio Second District Appellate Court and is binding in the following counties: Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami and Montgomery.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The traffic stop conducted by Officer Massie is a very good example of how a minor misdemeanor can develop into a felony investigation. The window tint violation quickly modified into a narcotics investigation based on the smell of burnt marijuana.  Letts made a feeble attempt to sway the court to determine that the traffic stop for window tint was unreasonably extended.  However, the smell of burnt marijuana followed by no licensed driver within the vehicle was an easy call for the judge. Mr. Letts argued that Officer Massie took too long to measure the window tint, the original violation for the traffic stop.  However, the smell of burnt marijuana provided the probable cause to initiate the narcotics investigation and hence the extended investigative detention.  Note:  On January 16, 2020 the State of Ohio legalized Hemp, the close cousin to Marijuana.  Because the smell of both Hemp and Marijuana are similar, the smell that established probable cause for Officer Massie on December 18, 2018 would not be valid today.  Therefore, law enforcement must establish that the smell of burnt marijuana is marijuana and not hemp to establish probable cause.  The case that provides the smell of burnt marijuana is probable cause was issued by the Supreme Court of Ohio on September 20, 2000 – State v. Moore, 90 Ohio St. 3d 47 (2000).
  1. When Officer Massie directed Mr. Letts to step out of the car, he asked for consent to pat down and Mr. Letts began to remove items from his pockets. Two areas of improvement can be gleaned from this encounter.   Because the Plain Feel Doctrine is trap for law enforcement, officers should NEVER ask for consent to pat down.  When in a consensual encounter, as Officer Massie was here, law enforcement should only ask for consent to SEARCH.  For more see  What Do Breast Implants and the Plain Feel Doctrine have in common?.  Secondly, law enforcement should not ever let a suspect remove items from his own pockets.  The clearest point is that the suspect could remove a weapon, so suspects should always be ordered to keep their hands out of their pockets.
  1. Officer Massie should be commended for establishing probable cause for a felony investigation and now conviction based on an equipment violation.  He had the tenacity to keep investigating as Mr. Letts provided more and more evidence.

Does your agency train on Probable Cause?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.