By Joshua P. Bussen

Today in United States v. Mitchell, the Fourth Circuit, in a per curiam opinion affirmed the conviction of Sidney Mitchell for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. Mitchell entered a conditional plea of guilty in the Middle District of North Carolina, reserving his right to appeal the judgment of the district court. Mitchell contends that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence of a firearm that was found while police were conducting a search of his vehicle. Mitchell was sentenced to twenty-six months in prison.

In the waning hours of sunlight on November 20, 2012, a North Carolina police officer stopped Mitchell’s car on a suspicion that the tint on the vehicle’s windows was darker than allowed under North Carolina law. While performing a test that would gauge the level of tint on Mitchell’s windows—a process that involves placing a device on the inside of the vehicle—the officer claims he noticed the smell of “burnt marijuana.” Though Mitchell denied smoking marijuana, he consented to a search of his person. After searching Mitchell the officer turned to the vehicle, discovering a small amount of marijuana resin and a gun on the driver’s side floorboard.

In the Middle District of North Carolina Mitchell moved to suppress the firearm due to an improper search and seizure. The district court found that the tint on Mitchell’s windows gave the officer reasonable cause to pull the car over, and the smell of burnt marijuana subsequently warranted probable cause to search the vehicle. On appeal Mitchell did not question the officer’s motivation for detaining the vehicle, but disputed “lawfulness of the subsequent search of the [inside of the] car.”

The Fourth Circuit, relying on United States v. Scheetz, 293 F.3d 175, 184 (4th Cir. 2002), held that the odor of marijuana emanating from a car warranted sufficient probable cause to search the vehicle. Mitchell’s final argument that the officer’s credibility should be questioned fell on deaf ears, the Circuit judges were not willing to disturb the factual findings of the district court because “the district court is so much better situated to evaluate these matters.”

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