U.S. v. Wald – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In U.S. v. Wald, 216 F.3d 1222, 1226 (10th Cir. 2000), an officer with the Utah Highway Patrol stopped a vehicle that had a badly cracked windshield. The officer approached the vehicle and spoke with the driver and his passenger, who owned the vehicle. Id.

The officer noted that both men appeared to be nervous and that the passenger had bloodshot and glassy eyes. Id. at 1224-25.

While speaking to the driver and passenger, the officer detected the odor of burnt methamphetamine. Id. at 1225.

The passenger of the vehicle consented to a search of the passenger compartment of his car. Id. The search did not reveal any evidence of a crime. Id. In a subsequent pat-down search, the officer recovered two pipes from the passenger's jacket pocket. Id.

The officer then searched the trunk of the vehicle and recovered two packages containing methamphetamine in addition to two torches used to smoke the narcotic. Id.

On review, the Tenth Circuit held that the odor of burnt methamphetamine, alone, did not provide the requisite probable cause to search the trunk of the vehicle. Id. at 1228.

In reaching that conclusion, the court distinguished between "burnt" and "raw" forms of contraband and stated:

"Had the officer testified that he detected the odor of raw methamphetamine, such evidence, if based upon proper foundation, would have sufficed to provide probable cause for the trunk search. In the instant case, however, the officer testified that he smelled only burnt methamphetamine, not raw methamphetamine, and that burnt methamphetamine has a distinctively pungent odor. . . . The strong odor of burnt methamphetamine, whether or not it can permeate trunks, does not provide probable cause to search a trunk, because it is unreasonable to think someone smoked drugs in the trunk of a car." Id.