Backpacks, Drug Arrests Pursuant to Traffic Stops, and the Constitution’s Protections Regarding Warrantless Searches

Many drug “busts” by police officers start as traffic stops. While most are conducted within the bounds of the law, a substantial percentage of them are not. In those instances, the pulled-over driver is subjected to a search and/or seizure that violates constitutional protections. When that happens, the search is illegal and the evidence obtained is subject to suppression in any ensuing trial. To get that evidence suppressed, though, you’ll need to make a motion and win an argument before the judge. When it comes to doing this (and all the other essential tasks of a criminal defense) successfully, make sure you’ve got the right Maryland criminal defense lawyer on your side.

As an example, there’s this drug case upon which the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Maryland, the Carolinas, and two other states) recently ruled.

The minor traffic violation, in this case, was tinted windows. A local police officer stopped H.D., suspecting that the man’s windows were illegally dark. While the officer was speaking with backup officers who had arrived subsequently, the suspect drove away.

A chase ensued that ended with the suspect on foot. During the subsequent pat-down search, the officer found “a large amount of cash.” After that, the officer took a closed backpack (that H.D. was carrying while fleeing on foot) and unzipped it, finding “large amounts of cash and two plastic bags containing what appeared to be cocaine.”

All of this, on the surface, probably sounds bad for this suspect. His legal counsel, however, saw that things were not as bleak as they might seem on the surface.

That’s because the prosecution had a problem. The centerpiece of the case was the drug charge and the police didn’t have a search warrant when they opened and searched the suspect’s backpack, which is where they found the potentially incriminating drug evidence.

The only way that the cocaine evidence was admissible was if an exception to the general rule against warrantless searches applied. The appeals court ruled that none did, so the backpack search was illegal, and the lower court should have granted the defense’s motion to suppress they made at trial.

The Critical Question of ‘Access’

This ruling is a huge aid for Maryland criminal defendants in the federal court system. It represents an extrapolation of a 2009 warrantless-search ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, Gant v. Arizona, the court ruled that a warrantless search of a car could be reasonable — and therefore legal — if the suspect “could have accessed his car at the time of the search.” The inverse was also true, meaning that the warrantless search of a vehicle that a suspect could not access was illegal.

The appeals court, in siding with the defendant, applied that standard to all “containers” generally, which included things like backpacks. The question then became: was H.D.’s backpack within his reach when the police searched it? Although the backpack was located very close to the suspect’s body, it was not within his reach. He was lying on his stomach and handcuffed with his hands behind him when the officer unzipped the backpack. That meant H.D.’s range of motion was so limited as to make the backpack outside his reach which, in turn, made the warrantless search illegal.

Police have many tactics and techniques to pursue and arrest people. Most are legal, but sometimes the police do things that fall outside the bounds of what the law allows. The law gives accused people tools to challenge those actions but illegally seized evidence doesn’t suppress itself automatically. A properly timed motion to suppress supported by powerful arguments is necessary to get that evidence excluded. When you’re facing criminal charges in a case involving a questionable search, count on the skilled Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to be the diligent and effective advocate you need. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form so that we can get started working for you.

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