Michigan Court Of Appeals Holds No Medical Marihuana Use In Parking Lot

On November 24, 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals held in a criminal case that, under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA), a person may not consume medical marihuana within their private vehicle when that vehicle is located in a public place, including a public parking lot.  

In People v Carlton, Docket No. 321630, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the MMMA's prohibition of using medical marihuana in "any public place" includes the inside of a person's private vehicle that happens to be located in a public parking lot.  Defendant argued that he was immune from prosecution or entitled to dismissal of the charge of possession of a controlled substance because the inside of his car was not "any public place" as defined in the statute.  The District Court dismissed the charge against defendant and the Circuit Court affirmed the dismissal.  The prosecution appealed.

The Court first recited the facts of the case:

The parties do not dispute the basic facts. In August 2013, Carlton went to Soaring Eagle Casino and parked his car in the casino’s parking lot. At around 11:30 at night, security personnel, who were monitoring the casino’s live-feed cameras, saw Carlton smoking what they believed to be marijuana inside his car. The security personnel called police officers and the officers went to the parking lot to investigate. Carlton admitted to the officers that he had been smoking marijuana and the officers saw a marijuana roach on the car’s dashboard. The officers searched the car and found four bags of marijuana in a Styrofoam cooler that was on the floor board of the front passenger’s seat. Carlton was the only person in the car at the time . . . .

The Court's analysis of whether the district court and the trial court erred in finding that the inside of defendant's vehicle was not "any public place" under the MMMA followed:

It is undisputed that Carlton was smoking marijuana in plain sight while seated in his own car and that his car was parked in a parking lot that was open to the public. On appeal, the parties ask this Court to interpret the phrase “public place,” as used MCL 333.26427(b)(3)(B), by reference to cases involving other crimes, such as gross indecency, see People v Lino, 447 Mich 567; 527 NW2d 434 (1994), or disorderly conduct, see People v Favreau, 255 Mich App 32; 661 NW2d 584 (2003), which involve acts done in public or in a public place, or by examining the privacy expectations informing search and seizure cases, see United States v Jones, 565 US ___; 132 S Ct 945; 181 L Ed 2d 911 (2012). We do not agree that the phrase “public place” has acquired a technical or peculiar meaning in the law. See People v Bylsma, 493 Mich 17, 31; 825 NW2d 543 (2012). Rather, this phrase must be given its plain and ordinary sense, as it would have been understood by the electors. See People v Mazur, 497 Mich 302, 308; ___ NW2d ___ (2015) . . . .

A person’s car is private property, and, in that sense, one might characterize the interior space of a car as a “place” that is private, or at least privately owned. However, a parking lot, which is open to the general public, is open for the specific purpose of allowing the members of the public to park their vehicles. Nevertheless, we 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 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. See People v Johnson, 12 Mich App 139, 143-144; 162 NW2d 667 (1968) (characterizing the authorities discussing unreasonable searches and seizures as “inapposite” in a case involving whether a defendant who was passed out in his car, which was parked on a public street, was disorderly in a public place: “But the point is that his defendant, though in his car, was in a ‘public place’ and the authorities are ample in support of that proposition.”). And, as with the bathroom stall, whether the members of the general public are able to see the person smoking medical marijuana does not alter the public character of the place. Therefore, we hold that the exception stated under MCL 333.26427(b)(3)(B) 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.

This construction of the phrase “any public place” is also consistent with the electors’ decision to separately exclude smoking marijuana on “any form of public transportation” from the protections afforded under the act. MCL 333.26427(b)(3)(A). If the electors understood the term “place,” as used in the phrase “any public place,” to include the interior of vehicles, there would have been no need to separately exclude smoking on “any form of public transportation” from the protections afforded by the act, because smoking marijuana on public transportation would necessarily constitute smoking marijuana in a public place. See People v Miller, 498 Mich 13, 25; 869 NW2d 204 (2015) (stating that courts must give effect to every word, phrase, and clause and avoid an interpretation that would render any part of the statute surplusage or nugatory).

Here, the undisputed evidence showed that Carlton was smoking marijuana in a car that was parked in a parking lot that was open to the general public. Consequently, under MCL 333.26427(b)(3)(B), Carlton was not entitled to assert the immunity provided under § 4 of the act, or the defense provided under § 8 of the act, and the circuit court erred when it determined otherwise; the circuit court should have reversed the district court’s decision to dismiss the possession charge and remanded the matter to the district court for further proceedings . . . .