How Ambiguity Regarding a Police Search Can Get Evidence Excluded in a Maryland Criminal Trial

traffic stopA man who was convicted of a drug crime took his case all the way to Maryland’s highest court to seek a reversal of his conviction. In this man’s case, the problem with the state’s case was that the prosecution lacked clear proof that the marijuana-odor evidence that was at the heart of its case was obtained through a legal police search. In cases in which the evidence is unclear regarding whether a police search was legal or an illegal Fourth Amendment violation, the court must resolve that uncertainty in favor of the accused person.

The case began, as many do, with a routine traffic infraction. A Frederick County deputy spotted a vehicle traveling at 50 mph in a 35-mph zone. The deputy pulled the driver over and approached the vehicle from the passenger’s side. As he drew closer to the interior of the vehicle, the deputy detected the smell of marijuana, although that scent quickly dissipated. Nevertheless, the deputy called for a K-9 unit. The dog eventually located a small amount of marijuana and a marijuana pipe in the center console of the vehicle.

The police arrested Terrance Grant and gave him a criminal citation. Grant later challenged this citation, arguing that the evidence the state used against him was inadmissible because the deputy conducted an illegal search. The specific crux of Grant’s defense was that the deputy, without probable cause, stuck his head inside the open window of Grant’s vehicle, which was how the deputy was able to smell marijuana originally. At Grant’s hearing, at which he asked the court to suppress the evidence, Grant’s lawyer was well-equipped with video evidence. The court saw a DVD recording of the stop, and, while the images were not perfectly clear, the judge acknowledged that the deputy appeared to place his head inside the open window of Grant’s car as part of collecting the driver’s license and registration.

Based upon that video proof, the driver’s lawyer asked the court to throw out the marijuana evidence. When the deputy stuck his head inside the vehicle, he violated Grant’s Fourth Amendment rights, the defense argued. The trial judge, however, denied the driver’s motion to suppress. Grant later appealed this issue, again arguing that the deputy violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling. That court stated that, although there were certain ambiguities in the case, those ambiguities must be resolved in favor of the side who won at the lower level, which was the prosecution in this case.

Taking his case all the way to the Court of Appeals, Grant finally secured a victory and a reversal of his conviction. The prosecution, the high court explained, had the legal obligation to prove that the search performed by the deputy was legal and complied with the protections granted to citizens by the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from warrantless searches in cases in which law enforcement lacks probable cause for engaging in such a search. If the deputy had smelled Grant’s marijuana from outside the car, he would have obtained the evidence without having engaged in anything that the law would define as a “search,” and all the evidence would be admissible.

If, however, he only detected the aroma of marijuana as a result of sticking his head inside the open window of the vehicle, that action of putting his head inside the car constituted a search under the law, and, given that he had stopped Grant only for a routine speeding infraction and had no reasonable suspicion that Grant had committed a drug crime, this head-inside-the-car-and-sniff test was an illegal search.

Additionally, the high court explained that, if a case presents a scenario in which the evidence is unclear as to whether the search was legal or illegal, the law requires courts to exclude such evidence. In Grant’s case, the proof was decidedly not clear as to whether the deputy first smelled marijuana with his head outside or inside Grant’s vehicle. The prosecution has the burden of proving that a search is legal. In cases like this, in which the evidence is wholly uncertain, that means that the state fell short of its burden of proof, and the court must disallow the evidence.

To some, the drug charge against Grant might seem minor. However, when you consider all the consequences a drug conviction can have on your life, there are no such things as minor convictions. Grant wisely secured legal counsel and pursued his case until he got the conviction reversed. Maryland drug crime attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has spent many years defending the rights of the accused and helping them exclude illegally obtained evidence. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Man’s Conviction Overturned Because Police Conducted Illegal ‘Frisk’ Search, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Sept. 8, 2016

Maryland Court Reviews Issue of First Impression in Marijuana Possession Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 22, 2016

Photo credit: Grant County, Kentucky, Sheriff Department.

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