Suspicious Bulges, Unusual Walking Gaits, and What Does (or Does Not) Qualify as Reasonable Suspicion in Maryland

Courts, as well as the legal community, are keenly aware of the challenging job that police officers have, Officers daily make split-second decisions while seeking to keep the neighborhoods they serve safe. They also, however, are charged with “respecting the dignity and Constitutional rights of persons they confront.” Sometimes, even skillful officers acting in good faith can step over the line and stop and/or search someone without a proper legal basis. When that happens and criminal charges come from that stop, knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense lawyers are here to vindicate the rights of those accused people.

This is especially true in neighborhoods that are home to high levels of crime, as a recent weapons case from Southwest Baltimore demonstrates.

Two city police officers, while on foot patrol in a high-crime area, spotted a man who they thought was acting suspiciously. Essentially, what they knew was this: the man, L.B., walked with his right arm swinging “freely” while he kept his left arm “braced against his side.” While the man was inside a convenience store, they spotted a “bulge in the front of his waistband.”

On those bases alone, the officers stopped L.B., told him he was not free to leave, and tried to frisk him. The man objected and struggled to get away, but the police eventually succeeded in their search, finding a revolver and illegal drugs.

This basis was not enough to permit the police to perform the stop and search, according to the Court of Special Appeals, meaning that the gun and drug evidence were inadmissible against the man in court.

Reasonable Suspicion Requires More Than Just Suspicious Movements

The law in Maryland says that “furtive movements” can provide the necessary degree of reasonable suspicion to allow police to conclude that the suspect is armed and dangerous, but only if those furtive movements are combined with something more. Simply engaging in “furtive movements” while on foot in a high-crime area is not enough to justify a stop under Maryland law, unless the police can also identify why the subject’s furtive movements were “inconsistent with innocent conduct.” Absent those additional elements, the police are engaging in a stop on a mere hunch, which isn’t allowed under the Fourth Amendment.

Additionally, a suspicious “bulge” is not enough to justify a stop by itself. Even if the police see a bulge that they think could be a firearm, if that subject isn’t engaging in suspicious conduct, then a stop generally is not lawful.

In L.B.’s case, his behavior was potentially consistent with many forms of innocent conduct. Potentially, a person could walk the way he did because of an injury or a physical disability. Alternatively, a person could walk that way to shield or protect some legal item of value, such as a wallet or a cell phone. In ruling that the police lacked the requisite level of suspicion to stop L.B., the court made it clear that if “the police can stop and frisk an individual merely because there is a bulge in their waistbands that they are holding in place, there would be … little Fourth Amendment protection left for those . . . who live in or have occasion to visit high-crime areas.”

In many drug or weapons cases, the key to the prosecution’s case is evidence the police seized in a warrantless search of the defendant. Sometimes, those searches were illegal (a/k/a not compliant with Fourth Amendment law in this state,) and therefore the evidence is subject to suppression. Getting all illegally obtained evidence excluded from your trial often requires skillfully argued motions launched at the appropriate time. To ensure your Constitutional rights are fully protected, count on the knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to help. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form today.

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