Maryland Man’s Conviction Overturned Because Police Conducted Illegal ‘Frisk’ Search

Maryland’s highest court recently threw out the drug and gun possession conviction of a man, due to the lack of reasonable suspicion on the part of the officers who searched him. The Fourth Amendment requires that law enforcement officers have a reasonable degree of suspicion before they can search your person. Simply being out late at night in a high crime area and responding to a police stop by behaving nervously and awkwardly are not, by themselves, sufficient to give officers the required level of suspicion needed to frisk occupants of a vehicle with a broken taillight.

The case began, like many criminal matters, with a traffic stop. Anne Arundel County law enforcement officers pulled over a car with a broken taillight. Inside the car were a driver and three passengers, including one man they had spotted earlier allegedly acting suspiciously while traveling on foot. They checked for outstanding warrants against the driver and, finding none, issued a warning for the broken taillight.

Officers also questioned each of the car’s three passengers, including Donzel Sellman, who was the pedestrian who had hopped into the back seat of the car shortly after passing the officers. Allegedly receiving consent to search the vehicle from the driver, the officers began removing the passengers, starting with Sellman. A frisk turned up a handgun in the man’s waistband. Further searching yielded cocaine, PCP, oxycodone, and heroin.

The state charged Sellman with several crimes related to his possession of the gun and the drugs. At his trial, Sellman asked the court to throw out the gun and drug evidence against him. The officers, he argued, did not have reasonable suspicion to search him, making the gun and the drugs the result of an illegal search. The trial court disagreed and allowed the evidence at Sellman’s trial. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed that ruling.

The state’s highest court reversed these rulings and threw out the conviction. The court was not persuaded by the state’s argument that, given the time of night, the location of the events (in a high crime area), and Sellman’s nervous behavior, the officers had sufficient reasonable suspicion to frisk him. The information observed by the officers — including the hour, the location, and Sellman’s suspicious demeanor — was only enough to give them a “hunch” that the man had committed a crime. “Unparticularized suspicions” or hunches are not enough under the Fourth Amendment to give law enforcement the right to frisk a person.

Further harming the state’s case was that Sellman’s allegedly suspicious behavior was more odd than suspicious. He sat in the car rigidly, facing straight ahead at all times and generally refusing to speak except when absolutely necessary. This might have been sufficient if the officers had convincingly explained how the behavior observed was clearly indicative of a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. In this case, the officers did not explain how nervously sitting in a stiff posture and failing to make eye contact was indicative of possible involvement in theft. Nervousness alone is not enough, since allowing officers to claim reasonable suspicion based only on nervous demeanor would subject many innocent people to “virtually random seizures.”

Another key to the passenger’s success was what the officers didn’t see. The officers’ observations did not include “furtive gestures, evasive maneuvers, bulges, bags, or containers,” or any of the typical sights that might arouse reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

If you are accused of a crime, the difference between a conviction and an acquittal may be your ability to keep out of evidence items that were acquired through unconstitutional or other illegal means. A well-versed criminal defense attorney can help you make sure that the only evidence you confront is the evidence that was obtained properly. Maryland drug crime attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has extensive experience and has the ability and resources to help you pursue a just outcome in your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Court Reviews Issue of First Impression in Marijuana Possession Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 22, 2016

Maryland Court Denies Motion to Suppress – Affirms Finding of Probable Cause, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Jan. 12, 2016

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