ANNAPOLIS – The Court of Special Appeals ruled Friday that police cannot stop a person just for being in a high-crime area.
A three-judge panel of the court overturned the drunken driving conviction of a man who was stopped by Frederick police because his car had out-of-state tags and it was parked in a known drug-trafficking area.
Allowing the conviction to stand would come “perilously close to entitling a policeman `to seize and search every person whom he sees on the street,'” the court said, citing previous opinions.
“Police may not randomly pull over and restrain citizens simply because they happen to be in an area noted for … frequent drug activity or a high level of crime,” said the opinion, written by Judge Andrew Sonner.
“The Constitution applies with equal force where crime is high and drug transactions open and notorious as where crime is low and drug activity apparently nonexistent,” Sonner wrote.
The case began on June 22, 1994, when Frederick Police Officer G.S. Gautney was patrolling the John Hanson Apartment complex and passed a parked car in an “area known for its high drug activity.”
Gautney, who court documents said has since been promoted to corporal, noticed the car had West Virginia tags. He decided to drive around the complex and check on the car if it was still there when he came back, he testified.
It was. Gautney said that when he pulled up behind the car, it began backing up, so the officer turned on his emergency lights to get the driver to stop.
The officer said he then approached the car and smelled alcohol on the driver’s breath. He asked the driver, Jerry Wayne Lawson, to take a field sobriety test and subsequently charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol.
But Lawson said that he was shifting from park to drive when Gautney’s car approached him from behind and turned on its emergency lights.
He said Gautney asked what he was doing in a high-crime and drug area and if he had drugs. Gautney also asked to search the car, said Lawson, who told the officer he could only do so if he had a warrant.
At a suppression hearing, Lawson presented a statement of charges in which Gautney said he decided to talk to Lawson simply because he was alone, in a drug-trafficking area, with out-of- state tags.
But Frederick County Circuit Judge John H. Tisdale rejected Lawson’s argument that the stop amounted to an illegal seizure and Lawson was eventually convicted of driving under the influence.
The appeals court disagreed with Tisdale, saying that Gautney was more than just questioning Lawson. When Gautney turned on his cruiser’s emergency lights, he was seizing Lawson, the court said.
It rejected the state’s argument that the officer had sufficient suspicion that a crime was afoot to seize Lawson.
Assistant Attorney General Rachel Kamins said the decision did not come as a surprise. Courts have been divided in similar cases when they have to establish if police had more than a “hunch” a driver was involved in criminal activity before stopping them, Kamins said.
“It’s not a standard [that is] all that defined,” she said.