Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals recently threw out evidence obtained after a Baltimore City police officer leaned into an open car window after a traffic stop. The court said the evidence obtained after the officer leaned into the car and picked up a pill bottle should have been suppressed and ordered a new trial as to some of the charges made against a Baltimore driver.
While on patrol in an unmarked vehicle, two Baltimore City police officers noticed a car that was speeding and weaving in and out traffic in northwest Baltimore. The officers decided to stop the vehicle. Anthony Wharton was driving the car while the car’s owner was in the passenger seat. The officers testified that Wharton was “fidgety” and said his license had been recently suspended. When the officers asked Wharton to get out of the car, one of them noticed an “open medication pill bottle” in the car’s center console. The officer, a narcotics detective, testified that when he leaned into the vehicle, he could see “five white pills” inside the bottle and that when he turned the bottle around, he saw that neither Wharton nor the passenger’s name were on the bottle. The five white pills were later determined to be Oxycodone. The officer also noticed .38 caliber bullets in a styrofoam cup. Wharton was arrested for possession of suspected illegal narcotics and possession of the ammunition. A search of the car revealed a loaded Smith and Wesson .38 caliber special revolver on the back seat under some clothes. A clear plastic bag containing suspected cocaine was also found in Wharton’s pants pocket.
Wharton’s attorney argued that the detective lacked probable cause for the traffic stop. The attorney argued, among other things, that when the detective leaned into the vehicle and turned around the pill bottle, those actions constituted a warrantless search unsupported by probable cause.
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable government searches and seizures and requires that arrests and seizures be made only if there is probable cause. Where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation or criminal activity has occurred, a traffic stop may be reasonable.
The motions court denied the motion to suppress the evidence. The judge said the traffic stop was justified by probable cause to believe that Wharton was speeding and had made an unsafe lane change. Noting that it was a “close question,” the court also said the search of the car’s interior was lawful, in part because the pill bottle in the console was in plain view, including the label on the pill bottle.
The appeals court disagreed. The court said there was probable cause to stop the driver for speeding and for making an unsafe lane change and to arrest the driver for driving on a suspended license; however, the detective did not have probable cause to search the vehicle. The appeals court said the search occurred when the detective leaned inside the window of the car to get a closer look at the pill bottle.
Courts have often ruled that a police officer’s physical intrusion into the interior of a vehicle through an open window or door constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, the appeals court noted. The general rule for a search is that if it is conducted without obtaining approval from a judge, then it is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to a few exceptions such as hot pursuit, plain view, stop and frisk, search incident to an arrest and the automobile search doctrine first recognized in a court case that goes back to the 1920s.
In this instance, only two exceptions – plain view and the automobile exception – could apply, the court said.
The plain view exception allows police officers to seize items in plain view where there is probable cause to believe that the items are contraband or evidence of a crime. Noting that there was a question whether the incriminating nature of the pill bottle was immediately apparent to the detective before he leaned into the interior of the vehicle, the court said that even an experienced police officer could not rationally infer from seeing an open pill bottle that it contained contraband. So, the search did not qualify under the plain view exception to searches.
Under the automobile exception, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, as long as an officer had probable cause for believing that a vehicle was carrying contraband or illegal merchandise, then the police can perform a lawful search of the automobile without a warrant. Wharton driving at a high rate of speed, swerving from lane to lane without using a turn signal and appearing “fidgety” did not give the officer probable cause to believe that the bottle contained contraband, the court said, noting that the man did not show any signs of drug use such as slurred speech or dilated pupils and that the pill bottle was the kind commonly used.
“In other words,” the court said, “possessing a pill bottle is a legitimate activity. The fact that such a common item is sometimes used to store illegal drugs, did not give the detective probable cause to believe that [Wharton] was using the bottle to store illegal drugs or for some other illegal purpose.”
So, while the other convictions were affirmed, the convictions for wearing or carrying a handgun in a vehicle, illegal possession of a firearm by a disqualified person and possession of oxycodone were reversed and the case was sent back to the lower court for a new trial.
If you are charged with a crime in Maryland, you should talk to a Maryland criminal defense attorney. If you are facing criminal charges, a Baltimore criminal lawyer can get the charges reduced or work out a plea bargain, among other defense options. The attorneys at The Law Offices of Thomas J. Maronick can help. You can contact Thomas Maronick on his cellphone at 202.288.0167, the law office at 410.934.3007 or via our website for a free consultation.