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‘Smell of marijuana’ new police tactic?

Jeremy Lazarus | 8/9/2018, 6 a.m.
A new police tactic is opening the door to warrantless searches of individuals, vehicles and homes. To generate the “reasonable ...

A new police tactic is opening the door to warrantless searches of individuals, vehicles and homes.

To generate the “reasonable suspicion” that courts require for police to conduct such a search, officers are claiming to smell marijuana, possession of which is still illegal in Virginia, according to defense attorneys and area residents.

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Betty Layne DesPortes

“It’s hard to cross-examine on an odor,” said criminal defense attorney Betty Layne DesPortes, who said it has become common to hear officers across Central Virginia use the reason of an illegal smell in court testimony to justify an otherwise inexplicable search.

“They need ‘reasonable suspicion,’ ” she said.

Omari Al-Qadaffi, an East End activist and founder of the anti-racism Leaders of the New South, has issued several Facebook posts about the use of what he calls “Richmond’s new stop-and-frisk.”

He posted the messages after hearing multiple anecdotes about people being stopped by officers claiming to “smell marijuana” and receiving a pat down.

He’s not alone.

The New Virginia Majority and Legal Aid Justice Center have been pressing the Richmond Police Department for details of police stops of African-Americans in low-income areas of Richmond. The Southside Chapter of the New Virginia Majority held a “power” march Monday evening to protest the lack of data on what it consider the overuse of police stops.

The department has advised both organizations it does not collect the kind of detailed data on police stops of individuals that the two organizations are seeking.

The department also declined to comment or provide data in response to Free Press questions about officers’ use of the “I smell marijuana” claim.

Police Maj. William C. Smith, who has been sitting in for Chief Alfred Durham who is on vacation, noted that all city officers “receive training and thorough guidance on all applicable criminal laws, Constitutional guarantees and rights and new court rulings. This is an ongoing process as case law changes are released or take effect.”

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Duron Chavis

Duron Chavis, community engagement manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, experienced such a police stop around 2 p.m. Aug. 2.

He recounted what happened in a Facebook post and in an interview with a Free Press reporter.

He said he had just pulled into the Shockoe Commerce Center on Hospital Street in Shockoe Valley when he noticed blue flashing lights behind him and two Richmond Police officers leaving their car and walking toward him.

“One officer announced that he had smelled marijuana coming from my car and also yelled at me, ‘Let me see your hands, let me see your hands,’ as he approached,” said Mr. Chavis, who is well known for his advocacy work using gardening to overcome food deserts in neighborhoods lacking grocery stores.

He also is founder and organizer of Richmond’s annual Happily Natural Day festival focusing on health, wellness and social change.

“The cop came up to the car with his hand on his pistol,” Mr. Chavis continued.

“I don’t smoke,” he said he told the officers.

He said they found nothing suspicious after a search of his 2010 Jeep Liberty and left.