ANNAPOLIS – While recognizing the gravity of the drug problem, the Maryland Court of Appeals said Tuesday that it could not suspend constitutional guarantees on behalf of the government’s “war on drugs.”
The court made its ruling in a Harford County case involving a 1993 police search of a Greyhound bus at a rest stop along Interstate 95.
Setting a precedent for Maryland, the court said that officers looking for drugs may not assume that an unclaimed piece of baggage is abandoned, and therefore cannot search it.
“Where the police act in their investigative capacity, their actions must comply with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment,” Judge Irma Raker, writing for the seven-judge panel, said.
Even so, the attorney general’s office may appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Gary E. Bair, chief of the criminal appeals division.
The baggage in question was found while Maryland State Police were monitoring Greyhound busses at the Maryland House rest stop on I-95 on August 16, 1993, to stop illegal substances from entering the state.
Two plainclothes state troopers arranged with the driver to board a bus from Newark, N.J., which had stopped for a 20-minute break.
After passengers returned and the driver claimed he had accounted for all of them, two officers boarded the bus, identified themselves and told passengers they were looking for drugs.
The troopers asked passengers to cooperate and identify their luggage, including items in the overhead racks. One trooper found a black suit bag, which none of the passengers claimed.
After several more attempts to find the owner, the officer went to the front of the bus, held up the bag and made a last request for someone to claim it. No one did and it was determined to be abandoned.
The troopers took the bag off the bus and searched it. They found cocaine and approximately 100 small bags of heroin.
The suit bag was then left at the side of the bus with a trooper while the other two troopers began questioning passengers.
Labaron Stanberry, who was an original passenger on the bus, was late getting back from his break. When he attempted to get on, the driver refused him entry until realizing he had miscounted the number of passengers.
When a trooper asked Stanberry if the bag was his, Stanberry initially said it was, then said it was not.
According a court documents, Stanberry then told the trooper that he was transporting the drugs to Richmond, Va., for $300 and was arrested.
Stanberry was indicted by a Harford County Grand Jury on one count of bringing a controlled dangerous substance into the state, one count of possession with intent to distribute and one count of possession of a controlled dangerous substance.
Stanberry’s attorney asked the court to throw out the drug evidence, arguing the police search violated his client’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unreasonable searches and seizures.
With that reasoning, the lawyer said that Stanberry’s statement to police should also be thrown out, given that it was made after the illegal search.
The state contended the search was allowable because the troopers “reasonably” believed the bag had been abandoned.
But Stanberry testified that he did not abandon the bag nor intend to do so.
The circuit court refused to throw out the drug evidence, and Stanberry was convicted. Stanberry appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. That court ruled the search was lawful, and let Stanberry’s conviction stand.
But the Court of Appeals reversed, saying that the search was illegal because the bag was not abandoned.
Bair, of the attorney general’s office, said that “because it presents a federal question, this is a case we will look at for a possible Supreme Court impetus.”
His office has 90 days to decide, he said.
Bair said Stanberry now is entitled to a new trial, at which the drug evidence would be suppressed. Whether to retry the case, he added, will be up to the Harford County state’s attorney. Stanberry’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Melissa M. Moore, could not be reached for comment. -30-