Lani Soo Aldrich and her boyfriend Robert Whittingtonwere hauled away to jail in January, accused by police of building and maintaining a "highly sophisticated" marijuana grow operation and having equipment used to distribute drugs.
But a recent ruling by the state's highest court led to the various drug charges against the Topsfield couple to be thrown out last week. They're now free, had their bail money repaid and Whittington is fighting to get back the seized items, which included 18 pounds of marijuana, one pound of butane honey oil and 78 marijuana plants.
Whittington's lawyer, Boston-based attorney John Seed, said the couple's home was the subject of an illegal search and that, in addition, they both had medical marijuana cards for illnesses.
"Very happy," Seed said of his client's reaction to the decision by an Ipswich District Court judge to dismiss the case.
The case came about after police were called to the couple's Topsfield home for a report of a break-in. It happened to be Aldrich's 12-year-old daughter who was locked out and trying to get into the home, said Seed. Seed said police helped her get in through a window and that's when officers could smell the marijuana. A search warrant was obtained due to the over-powering smell of unburnt marijuana and Seed said police showed up the next day and raided the home.
In countless other cases across the state, that would have been enough probable cause for the case to continue. But thenthe Supreme Judicial Court ruled in another case early last month that the odor of unburnt marijuana alone was not enough for police to conduct a search.
"Although the odor of unburnt, rather than burnt, marijuana could be more consistent with the presence of larger quantities, … it does not follow that such an odor reliably predicts the presence of a criminal amount of the substance, that is, more than one ounce, as would be necessary to constitute probable cause,” the court said in its ruling.
Seed said the assistant district attorney didn't object to the motion to dismiss.
An Essex district attorney's office spokeswoman said the office did not want to comment on the case or the SJC ruling.
Topsfield Police Chief Evan Haglund said search restrictions do impede an officer's ability to do his or her job, but that they would comply.
"Any type of ruling that puts any type of restriction on these types of actions will impede our ability, but we will comply with SJC's decision," Haglund said.
Seed said the couple had Massachusetts medical marijuana cards, but wasn't sure what illness they had and said he wouldn't disclose that anyway.
The state approved a 2012 ballot question allowing for the possession of medical marijuana and for those with a card to grow a 60-day supply. An exact quantity of plants for a 60-day supply has not been determined.
"There's no evidence to any degree that anything other than growing was going on there," said Seed. "This was a search warrant that went into effect the day after they were first at the home. This was not a two-month surveillance type of thing. They really jumped the gun."
Seed said he filed a motion for authorities to return the seized items, including the marijuana, to Whittington. A hearing on that matter is scheduled for September.
"I think it's going to change a lot of current cases because a lot of pending drug cases, or even gun cases, result from the odor of raw marijuana," Seed said.
Follow Michael Naughton on Twitter @metrobosmike.