Maryland’s Highest Court Agrees that a Man Caught in a ‘Light Rail Fare Sweep’ Had His Fourth Amendment Rights Violated

One of the most invasive incursions the state can make against its citizens is to breach the citizens’ right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects.” It is this invasive nature that led the Founding Fathers to address the topic within the Bill of Rights, banning unreasonable searches and seizures and requiring probable cause for the issuance of search warrants. It is this amendment that renders many warrantless searches illegal and the evidence seized in those searches improper for use against you at your criminal trial. Of course, illegally seized evidence generally doesn’t suppress itself; instead, you need the services of an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney who knows how to go about making – and winning – a motion to suppress illegally obtained evidence.

Several months ago, this blog covered the criminal case of K.C., a man discovered to be in possession of a gun and illegal drugs after the police conducted a warrantless search.

K.C. was convicted in the trial court, but the Court of Special Appeals reversed that conviction. That appellate court, among other things, looked at K.C.’s lack of control over the situation and concluded that his was not a “consensual encounter” with the police, which, in turn, meant that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

Now, here in 2021, Maryland’s highest court has also weighed in on this case, ruling in favor of this defendant, and has provided even further insight into why people who are searched without a warrant in situations like this have the potential to obtain suppression of evidence-based upon the illegality of the search.

The law in Maryland recognizes several exceptions to the general prohibition against warrantless searches. One of these is something called the ”special needs” doctrine. This is something where warrantless searches and seizures may be legal if they were performed as part of a larger program whose purpose was “to serve ‘special governmental needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement.’”

In K.C.’s case, he was caught in something called a light rail “fare sweep.” This involved MTA officers, some inside the train and some on the train platform, inspecting passengers’ passes to find out who paid for a fare and who was riding illegally.

The key to K.C.’s case before the high court, then, hinged upon the purpose of the kind of fare sweep that ensnared K.C. If the fare sweeps had been proven to be something that served an additional governmental need beyond just the need to enforce laws, then K.C.’s Fourth Amendment rights may not have been violated. But they weren’t, and so K.C.’s rights were violated.

The burden of proof generally falls upon the prosecution

Another part of the high court’s ruling is an important reminder about another fundamental concept of criminal justice: the burden of proof. After all the arguments from each side about the special needs doctrine were finished, the high court concluded that the evidence was inconclusive as to exactly what the primary purpose of a light rail fare sweep was.

That was good news for K.C. Once K.C. established that the state’s key evidence was obtained following a warrantless seizure, the burden of proof fell upon the prosecution to show that a valid exception applied. When the evidence is inconclusive, that means the state hasn’t met its burden, is not entitled to the benefit of the exception and you, as the accused, generally are entitled to suppression of the evidence.

What reading all of this should tell you is just how intricate and complex mounting a criminal defense can be and just how “technical” the argument might be that makes all the difference for you as an accused person. In cases like weapons possession and drug possession matters, the admission of a gun and/or drugs alone may go a long way toward making the state’s case.

On the flip side, a successful defense argument for suppression may go a very long way toward unraveling the state’s case and leading to an acquittal or to dropped charges. Knowing how to spot all of the legal minutiae — and knowing how to utilize it — can be the key to breaking down, and tearing down, the prosecution’s argument in favor of the admission of that key evidence. Rely on the skilled Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC, and our many years of experience and in-depth knowledge of the law, to provide that sort of powerful defense representation that you deserve. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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