Police officers must have a strong reason to stop and frisk a suspect, the Court of Special Appeals ruled Wednesday in a Rockville case.
The decision reversed the conviction of a minor who, on March 30, 1999, was searched by a Rockville officer who suspected the boy was carrying a weapon. The search turned up a bag of cocaine shoved down the front of the boy’s pants, and the boy was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
In his appeal, the boy argued that the search and seizure was unreasonable and unjustified under the Fourth Amendment. His public defense attorney, John Kopolow, could not be reached for comment.
This case is important in that it not only outlines when a search is permitted, but it also outlines the limits of such a search, legal experts said.
The officer, Cpl. Rich Seigelman observed the boy and a known drug dealer hanging around an abandoned building in downtown Rockville. The boy pulled an object from his pocket, showed it to the drug dealer and then stuffed it into the front waistband of his pants.
Seigelman said he believed the object was a handgun and stopped the men, ordering them to the ground and handcuffing them. Seigelman rolled the boy over, touched the area where the object was and took the object out, unwrapped it from its black plastic bag and revealed the cocaine.
While the appeals court found there was reasonable suspicion to stop and pat down the boy, “To order him to the ground and place him in handcuffs, however, required probable cause, which the officer failed to demonstrate,” wrote Andrew L. Sonner, Special Appeals judge.
The law outlines that a search and seizure without a warrant, sometimes called a Terry frisk, isn’t a search for evidence, but a way for the police officer to protect his own safety, said Dwight Sullivan, ACLU of Maryland staff council.
“Were we to permit Cpl. Seigelman to confirm only a suspicion that the suspect was in possession of contraband by searching the suspect…we would be extending Terry far beyond its original rationale,” wrote Sonner.
“This case provides us protection against police officers who are willing to say something as outrageous as I felt cocaine but I thought it was a handgun,” said Sullivan.
– 30 – CNS-11-29-00