How the Specificity of the Description of a Suspect Can Affect a Maryland Criminal Case

In many criminal defense cases, one of the most important aspects of the case may be getting (or failing to get) evidence excluded. One way in which you may be entitled to suppression is if the police stopped you but did not have a reasonable suspicion to do so. One circumstance in which that can happen is when the description of the suspect the police use contains only a race and very general descriptive information. Arguing successfully these types of Fourth Amendment issues is something that can often benefit from the skill of an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney.

A recent case involved a robbery in Gaithersburg. As is normal, dispatch sent out a call about the robbery and information about the suspects. Initially, dispatch simply stated that the suspects were “three black males.” One officer, who was in the area, responded and spotted three black males in the area of the apartment where the robbery took place. According to the officer, the men he saw appeared to be together and were the only black males in the area.

At that point, he stopped one man and discovered various items on his person that were used in the robbery, including a knife and a mask. Based upon this evidence, the state charged the defendant with robbery and assault charges. At the trial, the defendant asked the trial judge to suppress the knife and mask evidence. The officer’s search, he argued, was illegal because he didn’t have the appropriate level of reasonable suspicion to stop him. The trial court disagreed, allowing the evidence into the case, and the jury convicted the defendant on multiple assault and robbery charges.

The defendant appealed but was unable to obtain a reversal and a suppression. The appeals court explained that, when considering whether a suspicion was reasonable or not in terms of a stop’s compliance with the Fourth Amendment, judges must look at the “totality of the circumstances.” In general, the totality of the circumstances does not justify a stop when the description the officer has at the time he acts involves little more than the suspect’s race. In previous cases, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of suppression when the officer stopped a black man in dark clothing, based solely on a description of the suspect describing a black male wearing a dark top.

Sometimes, even having a detailed description isn’t enough to satisfy the Fourth Amendment, depending on the circumstances. In 2007, the Court of Special Appeals confronted a case in which the officer had a description of a black male, roughly 6’0” in height, weighing about 180 pounds and wearing a cornrow hairstyle. The officer later stopped a black man matching the description, but the appeals court eventually found the search illegal. As the Court of Special Appeals noted, there are a lot of black males who stand about 6’0”, weigh around 180 pounds, and have cornrows in their hair. This information was still too general to justify a stop.

In addition to the specificity of the description, there are two other important pieces of the suppression determination:  time and location. In those previous cases in which the defendants won reversals, the officers stopped them anywhere from a half-hour to several days after the crime. Some of them were found far from the crime scene. In this defendant’s case, the officer found him and the other two men very near the apartment and found them only a few minutes after the robbery. This difference was enough to make the stop permissible.

The defendant did obtain a partial victory, though. In the man’s trial, the evidence indicated that the defendant and the other two men made one agreement to commit armed robbery, during which the victim was assaulted. Under those facts, the law did not allow for the defendant to be sentenced for both conspiracy to commit first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. The Court of Special Appeals vacated the dangerous weapon conviction and sentence.

In any criminal defense case, there are multiple facets and multiple areas in which it is important to put on a strong case. Whether it involves the suppression of evidence, the dismissal of some charges, or the reduction of a sentence, any of these areas is a good reason to retain knowledgeable counsel. Skilled Maryland assault defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been defending the accused in Maryland for many years and working to protect their rights throughout all of the parts of the criminal trial process. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Man Facing Gun Charges Secures Reversal of Conviction Due to an Officer’s Improper Search, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Oct. 5, 2017

Maryland Court Reviews Sufficiency of Evidence in Burglary Conviction, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Oct. 22, 2015


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