ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Thursday that illegally obtained evidence can be used by prosecutors trying to seize a car in a drug forfeiture case.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court said that, while the tainted evidence cannot be used in a criminal prosecution, it is admissible in the state’s separate civil trial to seize the car.
The ruling allows Baltimore prosecutors to go after the 1995 Chevrolet Corvette owned by Weldon Cornell Holmes — even though criminal charges against him were dropped because the search of his car was unconstitutional.
The appeals court’s exhaustive, 140-page decision redefined the applicability of two 30-year-old Supreme Court cases on the admissibility of unconstitutionally seized evidence. It came as a surprise to some law professors and civil rights groups.
“The Court of Special Appeals seems to be against the tide of case law on this issue,” said Dwight Sullivan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland.
But others said the decision, written by Judge Charles Moylan, merely refined the Supreme Court cases.
The Supreme Court ruled in Mapp v. Ohio in 1961 that unconstitutionally seized evidence must be excluded from criminal cases. In the second case, One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania, the court ruled in 1965 that such evidence had to be excluded in forfeiture cases.
But the Maryland appeals court said the exclusionary rules outlined in Mapp and in One 1958 Plymouth Sedan do not have to be applied to all drug-related car forfeiture cases, whether criminal or civil.
“A close reading of the opinion reveals that it most certainly does not,” Judge Moylan wrote of Mapp. He added that the Plymouth case — whose obituary is “devoutly to be wished” — has not “retained its vitality” since it was handed down.
“They’re not defying Mapp,” said Edward A. Thomlinson, a University of Maryland Law School professor. “They’re just not extending it.”
The case began in May 1996 when Baltimore City Police officers stopped Holmes in his $36,000 1995 Corvette “based on their belief that the driver had just engaged in a drug transaction.”
When they searched his car, they found 535 grams of cocaine, some packaged in plastic bags. Court records said the cocaine — a little more than a pound — had a street value of $65,000.
The officers seized the car, in accordance with Maryland law that allows police to claim vehicles that are used to transport drugs.
The criminal charges against Holmes — who faced 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted — were dismissed because of the illegal search of his car and seizure of the drugs. But the Baltimore City State’s Attorney proceeded with the forfeiture procedure, filing a civil complaint in June 1996 to seize the Corvette.
Holmes’ attorney, Kenneth W. Ravenell, argued that the drugs could not be admitted in the forfeiture trial under the exclusionary rule from the 1965 Plymouth case. A circuit judge agreed and dismissed the forfeiture case.
But the appeals court panel reversed, saying there is “massive” evidence that the Plymouth case does not apply to a drug-related automobile forfeiture case in Maryland.
Holmes said Thursday that he does not know if he will appeal the case. He just wants his Corvette back.
The ACLU’s Sullivan said the ruling should not be the final word on the case.
“We think the Court of Appeals should review the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion,” Sullivan said.