WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will be asked to determine Monday whether Baltimore County police acted improperly by arresting all the passengers in a car after they found drugs and cash in it during a 1999 traffic stop.
At issue is the scope of police powers and the limits of probable cause, said attorneys in the case, which has drawn support from 20 other states and civil rights groups on both sides of the issue.
“It’s a clarification of what is probable cause,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “That’s very important for the police officer.”
The case began early on the morning of Aug. 7, 1999, when a Baltimore County police officer stopped a car for speeding. As the driver pulled his registration out of the glove compartment, the officer noticed a wad of cash and asked the driver for permission to search the car. During the search, he found five bags of cocaine between an armrest and the back seat of the car.
All three men who were in the car denied ownership of the drugs, so the officer arrested all three. Joseph Pringle, who did not own the car and was merely a front-seat passenger, confessed at the police station that the items were his.
Pringle was convicted, but later challenged his arrest. He argued that it violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure because the officer did not have probable cause to make the arrest, because he had no basis to identify an individual suspect among the three.
“The need for individualized suspicion prohibits arresting all occupants of a car based solely on the discovery of drugs in a hidden compartment inside the car,” the Maryland Public Defender’s office argued in court papers.
Lower courts rejected the argument, but a divided Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with Pringle and threw out his conviction, sparking the appeal to the Supreme Court.
The state of Maryland argues in its court filings that the arrest was “supported by facts and reasonable inferences drawn from those facts.” The state maintains that there was probable cause to arrest everyone in the car based on the fact that everyone denied ownership of the money and drugs and all of them had easy access to the items, in addition to the fact that it was late at night.
Maryland has the support of 20 states, which argued in a brief that police should be allowed to “take reasonable steps to facilitate their investigation of crime,” said Ohio Solicitor General Douglas Cole. He said it is reasonable for police to believe that “people driving together in a vehicle are engaged in a common enterprise.”
“One of them has to be the criminal,” Cole said. If the court ruled in favor of Pringle, “the police would lack the ability to arrest anybody.”
“That strikes me as a bad result for law enforcement efforts in regards to narcotics,” Cole said.
But others argue that it would be a bad result if the court ruled against Pringle. That would allow police to arrest everyone anytime criminal items are found hidden in enclosed spaces, said Boston University law professor Tracey Maclin, who filed a brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This rule cannot be limited to automobiles and will adversely impact the liberty and privacy interests of innocent people,” says the ACLU brief.
But Scheidegger said police need some common-sense protection, too.
“One of the difficulties of being a police officer is that you got to protect the public . . . and at the same time every step that you take is challenged,” he said. “Every piece of clarification as to what they (officers) can do is a benefit to them.”