If the Police Searched You Without a Warrant Just Because You Were in a ‘High-Crime’ Area, You May Be Able to Get that Evidence Excluded from Your Criminal Trial in Maryland

One of the ways that police seek to obtain evidence to use against suspects is through performing warrantless searches. A warrantless search may allow the police to recover drugs, weapons or other objects that lead to an arrest. Fortunately, the constitution does not allow the police to conduct warrantless searches whenever they want; rather, the law requires them to have a “reasonable articulable suspicion.” Without that, the search is illegal, and evidence recovered is subject to being suppressed at your trial. Keeping that evidence out requires making the right suppression arguments, though, so be sure you are protecting your rights by having an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney representing you.

Having established that a reasonable articulable suspicion is required, the next question you’re probably wondering is… what is a reasonable suspicion? For example, is the fact that you were caught by the police in a high-crime area enough to allow for a search without a warrant? As one recent case from Prince George’s County recently reminds us, the answer to that generally is “no.”

In that case, two Prince George’s County police officers went to an apartment complex in a high-crime area in response to a noise complaint. The officers saw several people in and around a dark-colored car. As the officers approached, T.R. stepped up onto the curb in front of the car. One officer asked T.R. a question and, after T.R. made a motion that the officer interpreted as reaching for a gun, he conducted a pat-down search.

The officer also did a pat-down search on the book bag that T.R. was carrying. Inside the book bag, the officer found a handgun and T.R. was arrested on a weapons charge. At trial, T.R. argued that the search of the book bag was illegal, and the evidence of the gun should be suppressed.

The appeals court ruled that the search was illegal. T.R.’s argument, with which the appeals court agreed, was that the prosecution gave the trial court no evidence that T.R. had committed a crime or was about to commit a crime. There was no proof that T.R. consented to the search and he reasonably believed he was not free to leave. Combining those facts, there was no valid constitutional basis for conducting a warrantless search in that circumstance.

Being in a high-crime area does not necessarily mean that ‘criminal activity was afoot’

The law in Maryland requires that, in order for a police search to be legal, the officer must have a “reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot.” The mere fact that the police happened upon you in a high-crime area is not enough, by itself, enough to amount to reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity. Back in 2011, the Court of Special Appeals addressed a similar case where the only basis the police had for searching the accused was that he kept adjusting his waistband and that he was in an area notorious for gang-related activity. The court in that 2011 case said that such bases, without something more, weren’t enough to entitle to police to do a search without a warrant.

In T.R.’s situation, the police confronted him in a high-crime area and T.R. made a movement the officer found suspicious. In both cases, the prosecution lacked anything more than a movement the officer found suspicious and a suspect located in a high-crime area. In both cases, in the absence of more, those facts did not support a finding of reasonable suspicion, which meant the warrantless search was unconstitutional.

When the state is charging you with a drug crime or other offense based on evidence obtained through a warrantless search, the difference between acquittal and a conviction may be your ability to argue successfully that the search violated your constitutional rights. To make sure that your rights are fully protected, and you have the best chance of getting that acquittal, count on the skilled Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. To learn more about how you can put this office to work for you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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