The trial court made a mistake when it concluded that a Maryland State Trooper lacked probable cause to believe that a man was guilty of impaired driving at the time of his arrest, the Court of Special Appeals has ruled.
The trooper was performing road patrol last year in an unmarked car a little past midnight on Route 213, south of the Chestertown Bridge in Queen Anne’s County. The officer saw a vehicle in the parking lot of a nearby business. The businesses were closed. The passenger doors were open and a woman was standing outside the vehicle speaking with a man in the driver’s seat. In testimony, the trooper described the scene as “suspicious” and pulled into the parking lot behind the vehicle. While he was talking to the vehicle’s occupants, he saw a can of an alcoholic beverage in the center console of the car as well as a glass smoking device used to smoke marijuana.
The law enforcement officer smelled alcohol on the driver and alleged that the man’s eyes were “bloodshot” and “glassy.” The trooper asked the man if he would take some Maryland field sobriety tests – the horizontal gaze nystagmus and the “walk and turn” test as well as the “one leg” test. Because of the man’s performance, the trooper concluded that he was under the influence of alcohol and arrested him.
At the hearing to suppress the evidence, the trooper said he had not received any calls, complaints or reports of a suspicious vehicle nor did he observe an altercation between the driver and the female passenger. The trooper also said that he hadn’t observed any illegal activity. The trooper said the scene was suspicious because of the lateness of the hour and the businesses being closed.
The trial court granted the motion to suppress anything seized incident to the arrest on the grounds that there was no probable cause for the arrest because the “field sobriety tests failed on behalf of the trooper.”
The state appealed, contending that the trooper had probable cause to believe the driver had committed a Maryland impaired driving offense. The Court of Special Appeals agreed with the state.
The appeals court said the initial encounter between the trooper and the vehicle’s occupants was a consensual encounter that did not implicate Fourth Amendment protections. However, the court said, encounters that begin as consensual can sometimes evolve so that they raise Fourth Amendment protections.
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
The court then considered whether there was reasonable suspicion to support the trooper’s administration of the field sobriety tests. The court said the trooper saw an open can of an alcoholic beverage and smelled alcohol on the driver. The trooper also saw a glass smoking device that was often used with marijuana in the center console of the car. In addition to the driver’s eyes being “glassy” and the vehicle’s passenger saying that the driver was “drunk but wasn’t too drunk.” The evidence was enough to provide the trooper with reasonable suspicion that, although the car was parked in the parking lot, the driver had been driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs.
The appeals court also said the trial court made a mistake when it concluded that the trooper lacked probable cause to arrest the driver for impaired driving.
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