When a Legal Traffic Stops Being Legal: Unconstitutional Seizures Under Maryland Law

The phrase “mission creep,” which pertains to “the gradual broadening of the original objectives” beyond a task’s original scope, goals, or focus, originated in military circles but has been adopted by much of the business world. A type of mission creep can occur in a police traffic stop, as well. While mission creep in business may cost time or money, mission creep in a traffic stop may cost the suspect his/her constitutional rights. If you were arrested because the police stretched the boundaries of their interaction with you beyond what the law allows, then an experienced Maryland criminal defense lawyer may be an essential part of getting evidence seized in that stop suppressed.

These sorts of movaing-target traffic stops are regrettably common. A recent drug case from Carroll County shows how a person’s rights can be violated.

On Aug. 11, 2020, a Carroll County sheriff’s deputy was conducting a traffic patrol of Route 140 in Finksburg. Shortly after noon, the deputy observed a car with two men in the front seat both of whom “sat stiff as a board” while avoiding making eye contact with the deputy. Thinking this suspicious, the deputy began following the vehicle to “look for a motor vehicle violation.” The deputy soon thereafter pulled them over for an unsafe lane change.

The driver pulled into a gas station parking lot. When the deputy interacted with the men, he allegedly perceived “high levels of nervousness,” including rapid, shallow breathing and trembling hands.

The deputy radioed for a K-9 unit while he waited for the driver to pull up a digital insurance card on his cell phone. The driver produced a valid card that was about to expire in a matter of days. The deputy issued a written warning regarding insurance renewal and declined to issue anything related to the lane change. After finishing, the deputy continued to engage the driver in a long series of questions. Eventually, the K-9 unit arrived and the dog alerted. The police searched the car and found evidence of opioids.

The state charged C.S. (the driver) with an array of drug crimes. The trial judge denied a defense motion to suppress the drug evidence (on the basis that the police’s search was illegal,) and C.S. ultimately was convicted.

The accused, however, successfully obtained a reversal in the Appellate Court. The deputy’s initial stop was valid. However, Maryland law is clear that a “traffic stop is lawful so long as there is probable cause to believe that the driver has committed a violation of the vehicle law.”

How One Stop Can Comprise Two Detentions

Once the officer’s mission (a/k/a the purpose for the traffic stop) “has been fulfilled, the continued detention of the car and the occupants amounts to a second detention” and is only constitutional if the driver consents or the officer has “a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.”

The driver’s failure to make eye contact, stiff posture, nervous behavior, and trembling hands were not enough to establish the required degree of suspicion. As the Supreme Court has previously instructed, the “Fourth Amendment ‘does not allow a law enforcement official to simply assert that innocent conduct was suspicious.'”

The appeals court highlighted that the “constitutional test is not whether actions are peculiar or unusual, but whether they suggest criminal activity.” C.S.’s didn’t, so the search was illegal, and he was entitled to suppression of the evidence.

Successfully vindicating your rights after an illegal search — whether part of a “stop and frisk,” traffic stop, or on another basis — requires properly timed and well-articulated objections, motions, and arguments. The knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC proudly offer our clients powerful defense counsel and advocacy designed to ensure that their rights are fully protected. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.

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