Is it illegal to possess marijuana in Philadelphia?

Information on Marijuana Decriminalization in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Marijuana Possession Lawyers

Philadelphia Marijuana Possession Lawyers

This article will explain the potential consequences for possession of marijuana in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. If you have been arrested for a drug charge or possession of a marijuana, you likely have a number of questions which may not be addressed in this article. Call us at 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session and the answers to your questions about marijuana charges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

I heard that marijuana is legal in Philadelphia. Can the police arrest me for possessing marijuana?

Although both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have begun to enact medical marijuana laws, the possession of marijuana for personal use anywhere in Pennsylvania and New Jersey remains a crime. However, the City of Philadelphia has taken numerous steps to effectively decriminalize marijuana over the last few years. These steps have significantly reduced the penalties and consequences of being caught with personal use quantities of marijuana for most people. However, possession of marijuana is still on the books as a crime. Unless and until the state legislature decriminalizes marijuana, it is still possible to be arrested for marijuana possession, and it is still a felony under state and federal law to sell marijuana. Likewise, possession of even a small amount of marijuana remains a crime under federal law, and with the change in Presidential administrations, federal authorities have recently signaled that they intend to continue prosecuting people for marijuana-related crimes. 

Philadelphia's Small Amount of Marijuana Program

The first step that the city took to decriminalize marijuana was the creation of the Small Amount of Marijuana ("SAM") program. Under the terms of this program, the District Attorney would ask defendants caught with under 30 grams of marijuana to pay a fine and complete a number of hours of community service. If the defendant successfully completed the program, then the District Attorney would move to dismiss the charges, and the charges could be expunged. If the defendant failed to pay the fine or complete the community service, then the defendant could still proceed with a motion to suppress and/or trial in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. In many cases, our attorneys have been able to negotiate for our clients who are facing marijuana charges to participate in the program and avoid a criminal record. Although conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana does not typically carry jail time, it is punishable by up to thirty day in jail as well as fines and court costs. Additionally, a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana will lead to an automatic six month driver's license suspension through PennDOT even where the marijuana possession did not occur in an automobile.   

Marijuana Decriminalization - Civil Citations for Marijuana Possession

More recently, city council passed a local ordinance allowing police to issue a civil citation to defendants instead of arresting them and charging them with Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana. The ordinance calls for the defendant to pay a $25 fine for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana and a $100 fine if the defendant was caught by police smoking marijuana in public. In most cases, the Philadelphia police will issue the civil citation (or simply throw the marijuana out) instead of arresting someone with a small amount of marijuana, and therefore the citation will not lead to the person having a criminal record or an arrest for drugs showing up on a criminal background check. The ordinance does not apply to the sale of marijuana or to possession of more than 30 grams. It is also still a felony under state law to grow even one marijuana plant. Further, possession of more than 30 grams of marijuana even for personal use may still be charged as Knowing and Intentional Possession of a Controlled Substance, which is an ungraded misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail for a first offense. 

The recent ordinance has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of criminal marijuana prosecutions in Philadelphia. However, it is important to remember that marijuana is still illegal. It is still a felony called Possession with the Intent to Deliver to sell marijuana, and the police have the discretion to arrest someone even for possessing a small amount of marijuana instead of issuing the ticket. In most cases, they do not do so, but they are most likely to make an actual arrest for possession when narcotics officers observe alleged drug sales. If the police believe they observed a person selling marijuana, then the police will often arrest the buyers and charge them criminally instead of issuing the ticket. This serves to document the fact that the buyers actually existed, which will often be used to bolster the prosecution's case in the Possession with the Intent to Deliver trial against the seller. 

Marijuana Is Still Illegal in Pennsylvania

One of the most important things to remember is that because marijuana possession is still a crime under state and federal law, police will often try to claim that they smelled the odor of marijuana or saw marijuana in plain view in order to justify the subsequent search of a defendant or defendant's vehicle. If the court believes that officers smelled marijuana, then the court may deny a motion to suppress if the odor of marijuana led the police to search for contraband. Finally, it is also a crime to drive while under the influence of marijuana or with virtually any detectable level of marijuana metabolite in your blood. Because marijuana metabolites may remain in the bloodstream for thirty days or more, a defendant who used marijuana may be convicted of DUI even if they were not even remotely high at the time of the arrest. 

Our Philadelphia Drug Charges Lawyers Can Help

Despite these positive steps towards marijuana decriminalization, Philadelphia police and law enforcement officers in the suburban counties continue to charge many people both with possessing and selling marijuana. The federal government also continues to aggressively pursue drug traffickers even in cases involving marijuana. If you are facing any type of drug or marijuana possession charge in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session with one of our defense attorneys. There are often defenses to these charges either through the use of pre-trial motions to suppress or at trial. We understand the fear and uncertainty you are likely feeling following an arrest, and we will immediately get to work answering your questions and building a defense to get results for you. 

PA Superior Court: If Police Have Probable Cause to Search a Car, They May Search All Containers In the Car

Police May Search Bags and Purses in a Car If They Have Probable Cause to Search the Car

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Runyan, 2017 PA Super 114. In Runyan, the Commonwealth sought reversal of a suppression order which found that police could not automatically search the purse of a passenger in an automobile even where police had probable cause to search the car itself. The Superior Court held that if police have probable cause to search a car, they may search all containers within the car in which they could reasonably expect to find the object of their search. Accordingly, police in Pennsylvania no longer need a search warrant in order to search bags or other containers in a car if they have probable cause for the search of the car. This is true regardless of whether there is any link between the container being searched and the driver of the car. In other words, police may search the purses and luggage of passengers in the car.  

The Car Search

In Runyan, local police officers in Mercer County observed a sedan parked with four occupants in it. Police observed the sedan in an area that the officers described as a high crime, high drug area. The vehicle was parked there late at night, so officers approached the vehicle to see what was going on.

As one of the officers approached the vehicle, he smelled the door of burnt marijuana coming from the area around the vehicle. When he walked up to the passenger side door, he could see a small bag of marijuana on the back seat passenger side floor. Naturally, the officer mentioned the bag of marijuana to the occupants of the car. The driver then attempted to crawl from the front of the car into the back seat and exit the car. At that point, the police officers asked everyone to get out of the car, handcuffed each occupant of the car, and began searching the vehicle.

Upon searching the car, the officer recovered the bag of marijuana which he had seen on the floor. Additionally, he found a number of purses in the car, and the officer searched those purposes. In one of the purses, he found a spoon, syringe, and crack pipe. The spoon had white residue on it, so the officer concluded that he had found drug paraphernalia. In another purse, the officer found a spoon with white residue on it and a number of syringes. That purse, unfortunately, also had the identification card for the defendant, Ms. Runyan.

Possession of Drug Paraphernalia

Based on the discovery of the drug paraphernalia in the purse, the officers arrested Ms. Runyan and charged her with possession of drug paraphernalia. Ms. Runyan moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that although police may have had probable cause to search the car, they were required to and did not have independent probable cause to search her purse. The trial court agreed and granted the motion to suppress. The court found that the “warrantless search of purses of passengers of a vehicle is not justified by the search incident to arrest exception.”

Police May Search A Car Without A Warrant – But They Must Have Probable Cause

The Commonwealth appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order suppressing the drug paraphernalia. The Superior Court cited the recent case of Commonwealth v. Gary in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that police do not need a warrant to search an automobile. Instead, because of the inherent movability of a vehicle and possibility that evidence could be lost during the delay inherent in obtaining a warrant, police may search an automobile whenever they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause means that it is more likely than not that the police will find some sort of contraband or evidence in the car. Obviously, the odor of marijuana, bag of marijuana in plain view, driver’s attempt to flee from the back of the car, and the officer’s extensive experience in making drug and marijuana arrests all combined to establish probable cause that there would be some kind of drugs or more marijuana in the vehicle. Therefore, the Superior Court held that officers could search any container in the car in which the contraband could be concealed, including Ms. Runyan’s purse.

The United States Supreme Court has already held that police may search any containers within a car when police have probable cause to do so. Therefore, following the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision, Pennsylvania and federal courts will now apply the same standard in automobile search cases. Police need only probable cause in order to search any container within the car.

There Are Defenses in Car Search Cases

Despite the Superior Court’s ruling, there are often still defenses in cases involving searches of cars. Although police may search the car and the containers therein when they have probable cause, it is often possible to challenge both the initial stop of the vehicle and whether the police really had the probable cause to conduct the search. First, depending on the type of stop, police must have either reasonable suspicion or probable cause to actually conduct a stop of a vehicle. If the defense can show that the police stopped the car arbitrarily or pretextually, it may be possible to have all of the results of the stop suppressed. Second, if the police did not actually have probable cause to search the car, then the results of the illegal search would be suppressed. Here, police saw drugs in plain view and the driver attempted to flee, but in many cases, the evidence of contraband is not so obvious and can be challenged. Finally, many drug possession and gun possession cases raise issues of constructive possession. In this case, Ms. Runyan made the foolish decision to store her identification card with her drug paraphernalia. However, in most cases, people do not do that. Had her ID not been with the contraband, then police would have had a difficult time establishing to whom the purse belonged without some kind of statement.  

A Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help With Drug Cases  

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq - Philadelphia Drug Lawyer

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq - Philadelphia Drug Lawyer

The Philadelphia Criminal Defense and Drug Defense Lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC can help with drug and gun cases in Philadelphia. We have litigated and won countless motions to suppress and possession cases involving vehicle searches and other searches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Our lawyers will work closely with you to build the strongest possible defense to your charges. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary, 15-minute criminal defense strategy session.