ANNAPOLIS – In a case that could affect future vehicle searches, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the drug conviction of a Jamaican man Wednesday, ruling that an identification by a confidential source was not sufficient probable cause for searching the suspect’s car trunk.
In a 47-page opinion, the court reversed the August 1999 ruling by the Montgomery County Circuit Court, which found Orville Radcliffe Dixon guilty of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and sentenced him to three years in prison with all but nine months of the sentence suspended.
To protect themselves, police have discretion to search the interior of a vehicle without a warrant, according to a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. The officer also is permitted to search parts of the car in plain sight and the car’s glove compartment. But searching the trunk, which is not in plain sight, requires probable cause.
Prosecutors argued information obtained from an informant constituted probable cause, but the court disagreed.
“In this case, making our own constitutional review, as we are required to do, we conclude that the informant’s tip did not provide probable cause to search the trunk,” wrote Special Appeals Judge Ellen L. Hollander. “The content of the tip, standing alone, was inadequate to furnish `a reasonable assurance of being based on firsthand observation.'”
In effect, the court said the police should have been more careful in corroborating the information obtained from the source before searching a vehicle without a warrant.
“To some extent, the Montgomery County Police Department would have been better off had they sought a warrant, so there’s something of an incentive to get the warrant rather than just relying on the automobile exception,” said the ACLU’s Dwight Sullivan, referring to the provision in law that allows police to search the passenger area for weapons.
The case arose from a January 1999 arrest of Dixon, when police acting on an informant’s tip surrounded Dixon’s Acura in the parking lot of Nordstrom’s department store at Montgomery Mall where he worked. The informant told police Dixon would be participating in a drug deal, the location where his car would be and a description of the car.
As Dixon returned to his car to leave for the evening, police moved in, handcuffed him and searched the vehicle. After finding no contraband on the passenger compartment of the car, officers opened the trunk to find a bag containing about nine pounds of marijuana separated into plastic bags. A detective testified at trial that the marijuana had a street value between $7,200 and $12,600.
Police did not ask Dixon to consent to the search when they initially detained him, and they did not have a search warrant.
The confidential tip came from a co-worker of Dixon’s, an informant police had used in other arrests. The court had to determine whether the informant had specific knowledge of criminal activity and whether officers could reasonably trust the information he provided.
During the initial trial before the Circuit Court, Officer Steven Phelps said the police handled the arrest properly. “Based on what the informant told me and what I observed at the scene, the totality of the circumstances, I believed there was probable cause for an arrest,” he testified.
According to a Montgomery County Police spokesman, warrants are obtained on a case-by-case basis. The decision whether to get a warrant depends on all the circumstances in an investigation.
The Maryland Attorney General’s office said no decision has been made on whether to ask for a review of the case.