Medical marijuana user can be prosecuted for smoking in parked car

by: Matt Newburg

11/25/2015 08:33 PM EST
Tags:
  criminal law  
  defendants  
  marijuana  
  mma  
  news  
  section 4  

A registered medical marijuana user who smoked marijuana in his own car while the car was parked in a public parking lot was not entitled to the protections or defenses afforded by the Medical Marihuana Act, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

The Court of Appeals published decision in People v. Carlton reversed the rulings of both the circuit and district courts, which had dismissed the marijuana possession charges that were brought against the defendant. The defendant was smoking marijuana while seated in his own vehicle, which was located in the parking lot of the Soaring Eagle Casino. The defendant admitted to police that he had been smoking marijuana. Officers saw a marijuana roach on the car’s dashboard and, when they searched the car, they found four bags of marijuana. The prosecutor charged the defendant with misdemeanor possession of marijuana based on the allegation that the defendant was smoking marijuana in a public place. Defense counsel filed a motion dismiss the charge because the defendant was registered as a patient under the Medical Marihuana Act and was smoking in his own car. Defense counsel maintained that because the car was not a place open to the public, the defendant was immune from prosecution under §4 of the Act. But the prosecutor claimed the defendant was not entitled to immunity because the car was located in a public parking lot, and the Act provides that registered patients cannot smoke marijuana in a public place. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and the circuit court affirmed. 

In its decision, the Court of Appeals noted that the Act’s immunity and defense provisions are subject to certain limitations, including the fact that marijuana cannot be smoked “in any public place” under MCL 333.26427(b)(3)(B). As a result, the Court of Appeals had to interpret the phrase “public place” as used in the Act. “We do not agree that the phrase ‘public place’ has acquired a technical or peculiar meaning in the law,” the Court of Appeals said. “Rather, this phrase must be given its plain and ordinary sense, as it would have been understood by the electors.” According to the Court of Appeals, a public place is typically understood to be any place “that is open to or may be used by the members of the community, or that is otherwise not restricted to the private use of a defined group of persons.” 

The question in this case, the Court of Appeals said, was whether a person stops being in a public place (a parking lot open for use by the general public) while he is in a privately owned vehicle. “For purposes of [the Medical Marihuana Act], we do not find that to be the case,” the appeals court declared.

The relevant inquiry is whether the place is generally open to use by the public, without referring to the registrant’s efforts or ability to conceal the smoking of marijuana, the Court of Appeals explained.  And while the defendant’s car was his own private property, the parking lot was open to the public, the Court of Appeals said. “[W]e do not agree that permitting the general public to use the lot to park private vehicles transforms the public character of the lot such that a patient who smokes marijuana while seated in a vehicle parked in the parking lot ceases to be in the public lot,” the appeals court wrote. “The lot remains a public place and the fact that a person in a vehicle occupies a place that can be characterized as private in some limited sense does not alter the fact that the person is at the same time located in a public place.” Therefore, the MCL 333.26427(b)(3)(B) exception “applies to persons who smoke medical marijuana in a parking lot that is open to use by the general public, even when smoking inside a privately owned vehicle, and even if the person’s smoking is not directly detectable by the members of the general public who might be using the lot,” the Court of Appeals concluded.

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