In many criminal cases, especially ones involving drug charges, one of the most important issues is the collection of evidence by the police and compliance with protections guaranteed by the U.S. and Maryland Constitutions. In a recent case of a driver stopped for a non-functioning tail light, the fact that the police found illegal drugs on a passenger in the vehicle (pursuant to a valid search) did not automatically give them probable cause to search the driver’s trunk in pursuit of more drug evidence, according to the Court of Special Appeals‘ ruling.
The case began, as many drug cases do, with a traffic stop pursuant to a minor infraction: in this case, a non-working tail light. Eventually, multiple officers and a K9 unit responded to the scene. The officers asked the driver and her two passengers to get out of the vehicle. The police searched the driver’s jacket but came up empty. When they searched the front passenger, though, they found marijuana, and they “smelled PCP on his breath.”
Having arrested the passenger, the police decided to search the entire vehicle, with the drug dog merely watching the events. The police found a scale and more than 100 grams of marijuana in a backpack in the trunk. With this evidence, the state charged the driver with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and conspiracy. The driver made a motion seeking to suppress all of the trunk evidence, arguing that the trunk search was an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial judge rejected the request, and the driver was convicted.
On appeal, though, the driver won. The appeals court agreed with the driver that the police lacked probable cause to conduct a search of her trunk when all they had was evidence that the passenger possessed drugs.
The first officer’s initial stop of the vehicle was, without question, a valid stop. The officer had probable cause to believe that the driver had broken a traffic law by driving with a non-functioning tail light. The constitutional flaw arose with the search of the trunk. Maryland law allows officers to conduct warrantless searches of trunks in other situations. For example, if an officer smells the scent of burnt marijuana coming from a car, a search of that trunk is not a Fourth Amendment violation. In that scenario and other situations in which the warrantless search is allowable, the key is that the police must have a reasonable belief that there are drugs somewhere in the car.
In this case, the police didn’t have that. They had a passenger in possession of 13 grams of marijuana on his person and whose breath smelled of PCP. That was all they had. They’d searched the driver’s jacket pockets and found nothing. They had no indication that the driver had taken illegal drugs, and, although she was extraordinarily nervous in terms of her behavior, that “could not, alone, establish reasonable suspicion, let alone probable cause, that she was transporting contraband in the trunk of her car.”
Here, the court suggested in a footnote to the opinion that the police erred by not going the extra mile to ensure that they had probable cause. Had the drug dog that was already on the scene performed a sniff test and alerted on the trunk, the result of the probable cause analysis might have been different, and the search might have been legal, according to the court. In this case, the police skipped that step, and that decision made the search illegal and entitled the driver to the suppression of the trunk evidence.
In your criminal case (or a case against a loved one), one of the keys to putting on a strong defense is ensuring that only evidence validly collected is presented by the prosecution, and everything collected in an unconstitutional manner stays out. Skilled Maryland drug crime attorney Anthony A. Fatemi can be your voice in pursuing these vital objectives of a criminal defense. This office has been representing the accused for many years, helping them protect their rights and put on a persuasive defense. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Court of Special Appeals: Maryland Police Officer Went Too Far in Conducting Warrantless Search, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 7, 2017
How Ambiguity Regarding a Police Search Can Get Evidence Excluded in a Maryland Criminal Trial, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Oct. 7, 2016