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Police had probable cause for man’s arrest that started with not wearing a seat belt

On Behalf of | Dec 9, 2019 | criminal defense |

A “traffic initiative” that involved police observing cars stopped at a red light for certain legal violations was not a traffic checkpoint so that there was no intrusion on a Baltimore man’s constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals recently ruled.

While conducting an effort to find vehicle violations involving lack of seatbelt use and cellphone use while driving, seven officers from the Baltimore City Police Department were stationed in Baltimore City at the intersection of West Pratt Street and South Payson Street in May 2016. When traffic was stopped at a red light, an officer would walk in front of or beside a vehicle to see if the occupant was wearing his or her seatbelt or talking on a cellphone. If the light was green, to keep from interfering with the flow of traffic, the officers did not make any stops even if they observed a violation.

Clifton Johnson, who was stopped at a red light, was cited for failure to wear a seat belt. Because of that stop, the police discovered an open warrant for Johnson’s arrest as well as a loaded handgun under the driver’s seat of the vehicle.

Johnson was charged with illegal possession of a regulated firearm, wearing, carrying and transporting a handgun on his person and in a vehicle, possession of ammunition and operating a vehicle while not wearing a seat belt. Johnson filed a motion to suppress the evidence relating to the handgun, which was denied. At the suppression hearing, the State argued that Baltimore police officers looking inside vehicles that were halted at a “traffic control device” was not a “traffic checkpoint” for Fourth Amendment purposes, but instead constituted a “traffic initiative.” The State also argued that the police had probable cause to stop Johnson because not only was the vehicle not properly registered, but Johnson also had an open arrest warrant. The motions court agreed with the State.

Traffic checkpoint programs have been ruled as lawful under the Fourth Amendment for several years and are designed to police the border or ensure roadway safety. However, Maryland courts have ruled that when the purpose of a checkpoint program is to “uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, the program contravenes the Fourth Amendment.”

After a trial, a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury convicted Johnson of illegal possession of a regulated firearm, wearing, carrying and transporting a handgun on his person and in a vehicle and possession of ammunition. Johnson was sentenced to eight years for illegal possession of a regulated firearm, the first five years without possibility of parole and concurrent sentences of one year on the remaining counts. Johnson appealed.

Maryland’s intermediate appellate court upheld the convictions. The Court of Special Appeals said the traffic initiative was not a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment. The court noted that the police did not stop every vehicle and did not block or restrict traffic. The police only stopped vehicles whose drivers were not wearing a seat belt or using a cellphone. There was probable cause to stop Johnson because an officer saw that he was not wearing his seat belt, the appeals court concluded.

If you’re facing firearm or other criminal charges in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and the surrounding areas, you should talk to a Baltimore criminal defense attorney. The attorneys at Maronick Law LLC have experience handling Baltimore City and Baltimore County criminal defense cases. You can contact Thomas Maronick on his cellphone at 410-881-4022, the law office at 410-881-4022 or via our website for a free consultation.



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