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In an opinion published today, the Appeals Court ruled that police had probable cause to search a vehicle after seeing a crack pipe on the driver-side floorboard.

The facts of the case arose in September 2019 when state police stopped a motorist on I-91 near Bernardston, a few miles from the Vermont border.

Troopers initiated the stop after checking the vehicle’s registration and learning that the driver had a suspended license.

When troopers asked the driver to step out of the car, they saw a used crack pipe in plain view on the floorboard.  This discovery, without more, prompted police to search the entire vehicle for drugs and related contraband.  The search uncovered large amounts of heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. 

The defendant’s attorney filed a motion challenging the vehicle search and asking the trial court to suppress the drugs.  The motion was allowed.  According the Appeals Court’s, the trial judge concluded

that an officer’s observation of certain drug paraphernalia, absent some visible amount of contraband drugs or signs of recent consumption, cannot supply probable cause to search a vehicle for illegal drugs.

The Appeals Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and held that probable cause did, in fact, exist and that the vehicle search was justifiable.

An officer’s mere observation of a benign object often associated with drug use or distribution generally will not supply probable cause to search… A crack pipe, however, falls squarely outside this class of objects, as it is primarily used for an illegal purpose: smoking crack cocaine. This distinguishes it from other items that have lawful applications but may also be — or used in close connection with — contraband in other circumstances.


The crack pipe’s location in the vehicle, on the floor board near the foot of the driver and registered owner, also established a sufficient nexus between the vehicle and this suspected criminal activity.

Finally, the Appeals Court rejected the lower court’s conclusion that “some visible amount of contraband drugs or signs of recent consumption” must be present to validate a search.

there is no per se rule requiring such evidence under our jurisprudence on probable cause. Rather, our case law suggests that the absence of an observable amount of contraband drugs is not determinative.