Court of Special Appeals: Maryland Police Officer Went Too Far in Conducting Warrantless Search

One of the most important tools in a police officer’s arsenal of law enforcement techniques is what’s called a Terry stop. However, one of the law enforcement techniques that is the most susceptible to misuse is the Terry stop. In a recent drug case from southeastern Maryland, the Court of Special Appeals overturned a man’s conviction, concluding that the Terry stop in his case was improper. The case is a clear reminder of the limitations of law enforcement’s authority to engage in warrantless stop-and-frisk searches of citizens.

The incident began with an anonymous tip phoned in to a Delmar Police officer. The tip asserted that a man wearing gray sweatpants and a Chicago Bulls cap was standing in front of an apartment building with a gun in the waistband of his pants. Later, the officer received a call from a dispatcher that again described a gun-toting man in sweatpants and a Bulls hat in front of the apartment building.

The officer eventually found the man in the Bulls cap. The officer approached the man and eventually engaged in a pat-down of the man. The officer never found a gun but did find drugs and drug paraphernalia.

The state brought multiple drug charges, including possession of heroin and possession of drug paraphernalia. The central thrust of the man’s case was that the officer did not have the right to conduct the search that uncovered the drugs and contraband, and all of that evidence should be suppressed at trial. The trial judge described the police’s basis for the search as “very thin” but declined to suppress. The man was convicted.

On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals threw out the conviction. The evidence should have been suppressed, that court decided. It all came down to the exact limits of law enforcement’s authority to conduct a type of warrantless search known as a Terry stop, which took its name from the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio. In that decision, the high court declared that, in some circumstances, police could engage in searches of citizens, even without a warrant and without probable cause.

These types of “Terry frisk” searches have substantial limitations, however. The police still must have what’s called a reasonable suspicion. Even if the officer has the necessary degree of reasonable suspicion to make a stop without a warrant (a “Terry stop”), that doesn’t necessarily mean that the police have the right to search that person without a warrant (a “Terry frisk”) because the justification required for a Terry frisk is separate and different from what’s needed to justify a Terry stop.

In both types of scenarios, the key is that the police must have a “reasonable articulable particularized and individualized suspicion.” In this case, the officer had a suspicion, based upon the tip, that the man might have a gun. The officer’s stop and initial pat-down revealed only a “soft bulge” in the man’s front pants pocket that could not be interpreted as a gun or any other weapon. The officer, the appeals court explained, should have finished patting down the man for weapons and, once he assured himself the man had none, concluded his searching. “Whatever else the appellant may have had on his person was constitutionally beside the point,” according to the court.

The officer didn’t stop there, and that’s when the search exceeded constitutional authority. This meant that the evidence should have been suppressed as a Fourth Amendment violation.

To make certain that your rights are protected to the maximum extent possible, consult skilled Maryland drug crime attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been working for many years to provide a defense to those accused of crimes. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

What Happens When the State’s Expert Lies on the Stand in a Maryland Criminal Trial, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Nov. 4, 2016

Maryland Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Petition for Post Conviction Relief, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Feb. 5, 2016

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