When a Baltimore Police Officer Put His Head in an Open Car Window, He Engaged in a Warrantless Search, According a Recent Maryland Court Ruling

In many criminal defense cases, the difference between a conviction and an acquittal can come down to what evidence got presented to the jury, and what evidence did not. In that regard, one of the more important parts of your criminal defense can be your request that asks the judge to suppress evidence obtained through an illegal search. Both the federal and Maryland constitutions give citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and it is often vitally important to a person standing trial to use that right to his or her maximum impact. Whether it is arguing your motion to suppress or some other aspect of your defense, an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney can help you make the arguments you need in the most effective way possible.

For an example of this issue of illegal searches, consider the facts of one Baltimore man’s recent case. While patrolling northwest Baltimore, two police officers spotted a gray sedan that was allegedly speeding and weaving through a two-lane street. The officers concluded they had grounds to make a stop for erratic driving, speeding and unsafe lane changing. So they did.

During the stop, one officer spotted an orange prescription bottle with no lid in a cup holder. The officer leaned into the vehicle, moved the bottle around and spotted five white pills inside and a name on the bottle that belonged to neither the driver nor the passenger. The officer kept investigating inside the center console and found a Styrofoam cup with bullets for a .38 handgun. At that point, the officers arrested the driver, A.W., and began searching the entire vehicle. They found a .38 in the back seat under some clothes and a bag containing suspected cocaine in the driver’s pants pocket. The bottle contained five Oxycodone pills.

The state put A.W. on trial, alleging drug, weapons and traffic offenses. The defense argued to the trial judge that the court should suppress all of the drug evidence and all of the gun and ammunition evidence. All of these discoveries by the police were made as a result of searches that the officers performed for which they did not have probable cause, according to the defense’s argument.

The Court of Special Appeals concluded that the defense counsel was correct. The officers were entitled to stop the driver for his speeding and making an unsafe lane change, and they were entitled to arrest A.W. for driving on a suspended driver’s license. That, however, was all that the facts entitled the police to do.

The law is fairly clear that, when a police officer sticks his or her head inside your vehicle’s open window, the officer has engaged in a “search” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. What that means is that the officer must have probable cause to take this action and, if he puts his head inside your vehicle and he did not have probable cause, then that is very likely an illegal search and anything he spots or finds while doing so is entitled to be suppressed and not used as evidence at your trial.

The ‘Plain View Doctrine’ and Your Motion to Suppress Evidence

One of the common arguments the prosecution may use to avoid having evidence suppressed as the product of an illegal search is the “plain view” rule. If something is out in the open, then the officer’s use of his visual senses is permissible and the evidence generally cannot be subject to suppression.

A.W. was successful in his case because the only thing that was in plain view in his vehicle was a prescription bottle with no lid. Even with the officer’s knowledge and experience as a narcotics officer, the mere presence of a prescription bottle with no lid in a vehicle cup holder was, by itself, not enough to provide reasonable suspicion that anyone in the car was engaged in any illegal drug crimes. That all meant that the officer did not have probable cause for picking up the bottle, for rummaging through the center console or any of the acts that led to the discovery of the bullets, the gun, the Oxycodone pills or the cocaine. As a result, A.W. was entitled to a new trial without any of that evidence coming against him.

When it comes to your criminal defense, you need strong and persuasive defense counsel. You need experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been providing effective defense representation for the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

What Happens When Police in Maryland Find Evidence of Drugs on One of Your Passengers?, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 5, 2017

How Ambiguity Regarding a Police Search Can Get Evidence Excluded in a Maryland Criminal Trial, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Oct. 7, 2016


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