When a Police Stop in Maryland is — and Isn’t — Consensual, and What that Difference Means for Your Fourth Amendment Rights

As we noted earlier this month, many drug arrests start as traffic stops. In addition, a lot of drug arrests stem from encounters where the police stop an individual and eventually engage in a search of that individual’s person. Unless the interaction was completely voluntary (such as a situation where the police informed you that you were free to leave,) that stop may implicate your Fourth Amendment rights, and any evidence obtained in that search may be illegally obtained if the police lacked the required degree of reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Contesting illegal searches and getting illegally obtained evidence suppressed is often a key component of success in criminal defense, especially in weapons or drug cases. Having the right Maryland criminal defense lawyer on your side is an essential part of maximizing your chances of success in this type of motion.

A drug case from last year involving a search conducted at a shopping mall highlights many of the considerations involved in this kind of case. The incident began when two local police detectives patrolling the Brooklyn Park Shopping Plaza noticed a man, A.G., who had been banned from the plaza based on suspected drug dealing.

When they caught up to A.G., D.S. was standing at his side. The detectives asked to search A.G. and he consented. At that point, D.S. volunteered to allow the detectives to search his pockets. During the latter search, police discovered an object beneath one of the teen’s pockets. Upon further searching, the police found 26 vials of crack cocaine.

At his court hearing, D.S. sought suppression of the drug evidence. The key dispute in the case revolved around this central question: “what kind of police encounter was this?”

That matters a great deal when it comes to motions to suppress. Under Maryland law, there are three types of police interactions. There’s an arrest, which is the most intrusive type of interaction. In an arrest scenario, the police are required to have “probable cause to believe that a person committed or is committing a crime.”

The intermediate type is something called a “Terry stop” (taking its name from a landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case entitled Terry v. Ohio.) This type of interaction is also sometimes called an “investigative stop.” To engage in a valid Terry stop, the police must have a “reasonable articulable suspicion that the person committed or is about to commit a crime.”

The least intrusive interaction is a mere “accosting” or “consensual encounter.” This occurs when the police approach a person and ask questions or engage in conversation. As the name implies, the person accosted is under no obligations and can walk away whenever he/she wants.

In a consensual encounter, you have no Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure protections; whereas, in the other two situations, you do.

A Reasonable Person Wouldn’t Have Felt Free to Go

The appeals court concluded that the interaction with D.S. was an investigative stop. To decide the nature of a stop, courts must look at the totality of the circumstances involved. In D.S.’s case, four uniformed police officers had surrounded D.S. and A.G. immediately outside a barbershop. The officers had formed an arc around the teen and the man, with the pair’s backs against the barbershop’s wall. The officers formed a tight enough arc that they were in very close proximity to the man and the teen.

That was enough to create the reasonable impression that neither was free to go. As the court put it, “Given this unmistakable show of authority and the accompanying failure to advise D.S. that he was free to go, … no reasonable person in D.S.’s position would have felt free to walk away.”

That meant the stop was an investigative one and, because the detectives lacked any reasonable articulable suspicion regarding D.S., the search was illegal and the evidence should have been suppressed.

So now, hopefully, you’ve learned a bit more about the law of searches and seizures. One of the most important things you should recognize is that these issues — and winning these kinds of motions in court — involve in-depth knowledge of the law. To maximize your chances of getting that illegally obtained evidence suppressed, rely on the experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC. We’ve helped countless people whose cases arose from illegal searches, and are here to help you get justice. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form so that we can get started working for you.

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