Maryland Court Upholds Officer’s “Pat Down” Search of Defendant

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Under established case law, an officer who “pats down” or “stops and frisks” a person must be able to justify the intrusion by pointing to “specific and articulable facts” that, when considered together “with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” Essentially, the officer must be able to articulate what it was that aroused his or her suspicions in order to justify the search. In such cases, courts will evaluate the reasonableness of the search or seizure in light of the unique circumstances of the case.

Clearly, whether the officer is entitled to conduct a pat down depends in large part on the specific facts. Where appropriate, an individual arrested or charged with a crime may argue that the officer violated his or her constitutional rights and was not justified in conducting the search. In such cases, the defendant may be able to suppress any evidence gathered as a result of that search. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, it is extremely important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who is fully aware of proper legal criminal procedure in Maryland.

In a recent case, the defendant was convicted of possession of cocaine, wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun in a vehicle (and on his person), concealing a dangerous weapon, and speeding. According to the suppression hearing record, the arresting officer stopped the defendant for driving 58 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone. According to the officer, during the stop, the defendant was sitting “statue-like,” staring straight ahead with his hands in his lap. The officer also noticed that the defendant’s two front jacket pockets were “bulging” as if they had something in them. Because of the bulges in the defendant’s pockets and because he failed to make eye contact, the officer decided to obtain information regarding the defendant’s criminal history. He found out that the defendant was on probation for a possession of a handgun in a vehicle charge.

As a result, the officer contacted the K-9 unit for assistance. The defendant refused to get out of the car for the traffic stop. The officer advised that he would use force if necessary to remove the defendant from the car. As the officer reached for the defendant’s right hand, the defendant moved it to his right pocket. At that point, the officer cuffed him, pulled him out of the car, and patted down his right front pants pocket. While there were gloves in the defendant’s jacket pocket, he had a loaded handgun in his right pants pocket. At the suppression hearing, the defendant argued that the bulges in his jacket were insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion under established case law to justify a search. The state argued that the defendant’s “stoic” behavior, combined with the “bulges” in his pockets, led the officer to contact the K-9 unit. Furthermore, the defendant had already been on probation for possession of a handgun.

The court denied the motion to suppress based on the totality of the circumstances. On appeal, the defendant argued that the officer’s suspicion of a weapon was limited to the bulges in his pockets, and that is not sufficient to warrant a “frisk.” The court noted that each stop and frisk case is to be evaluated in light of the particular circumstances. Here, the court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress the evidence, holding that the officer had “reasonable articulable suspicion to frisk” the defendant:  his unusual demeanor, the prior handgun offense, and the bulges in his pockets.

While the defendant did not succeed on his motion to suppress, there are many instances when a search and seizure could be deemed to be unjustified under the law. An experienced criminal defense attorney could identify the circumstances under which a valid search and seizure defense could be asserted. Anthony Fatemi is an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney who can work to develop the best strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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