Probable Cause to Search A Car for Drugs in Maryland

The Fourth Amendment protects people against unlawful searches and seizures. Usually, a warrant is required for a search. Often a criminal defense attorney is able to prevent evidence against his client from coming in, if he can show that the evidence was obtained through an unlawful search or seizure. However, there are exceptions, such as when a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe a crime is being committed in a car, searches the car and finds evidence that a crime was committed.

In a recent case, a woman pled guilty to possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. The case arose when a law enforcement officer was dispatched to a grocery store. He had been called to that store on multiple occasions previously to deal with a white woman who loitered in front of the store. The store believed she was a prostitute.

The officer had learned from the woman that she was a prior heroin user that had been clean for about a year. He served her with a cease and desist order that prohibited her loitering in that location and others.

On the night in question, the officer came to the store after the woman had already left to go to a trailer park. The officer and another officer went to the trailer park and found her sitting in the driver’s seat of a car there. Her feet were on the ground hanging out of the open driver’s side door.

The officer saw there was an open beer can in the car and torn plastic baggies in which there appeared to be drug paraphernalia. He later testified that the baggies were the kind used to carry packaged heroin.

The officer detained the woman and put her in handcuffs, then searched her purse and car. They found various items associated with drug possession including a lighter and Q-tips. The officer also looked in a “hidden compartment” in which were hidden syringes and baggies containing something suspected to be heroin.

The woman was charged. At a suppression hearing, the State introduced evidence of the car’s interior and items seized. While the court did not find the open beer can do be evidence of wrongdoing, it did believe the torn plastic bags were evidence of wrongdoing.

The court explained that because the officer had seen drug paraphernalia, he thought he had probable cause to search the vehicle. It also found that the corners being torn off bags suggested they had previously held a controlled substance. The court found the warrantless search was reasonable and did not suppress the evidence.

At trial, the jury pled guilty on an agreed statement of facts. She was sentenced and appealed. The appellate court explained though a warrant is usually needed, there is an exception where a police officer has probable cause to believe there is concealed contraband being illegally transported in the vehicle. The appellate court explained that probable cause is a practical determination that it is likely there will be contraband or other criminal evidence in a specific place.

The woman argued that there were three reasons it was improper for the officer to search her vehicle: (1) he suspected prostitution, which didn’t authorize a warrantless search; (2) the open beer can did not give him probable cause; and (3) the plastic bags he saw did not give him probable cause. She also argued that the possession of paraphernalia was not an arrestable offense, and therefore searching because he suspected possession of paraphernalia wasn’t good enough.

The State conceded that there was no probable cause based on several of these grounds. However, the appellate court explained that the defendant should have moved for a reconsideration of his motion to suppress during the trial, once it became likely there was an unconstitutional seizure.

When ruling on a suppression hearing, the court can only look at the record of the suppression hearing, not at the trial evidence. Therefore, the court considered the officer’s observation of baggies that he knew from experience were likely heroin paraphernalia and the officer’s own prior knowledge that the woman was an admitted heroin user. Though plastic bags are not necessarily criminal, police officer may use their experience to determine that items with innocent uses are being used as drug paraphernalia.

In this case, the officer observed other aspects of the baggies that suggested they had previously held dangerous substances. The appellate court concluded that the subsequent search was reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should call a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop the best strategy we can to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More Blogs

What Constitutes “Contempt of Court” in Maryland Criminal Court, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 12, 2013

Is Self-Defense an Available Defense in a Charge of Affray? Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 18, 2013


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