Court to hear car, drugs case

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent  |  March 24, 2003 at 10:58 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court Monday agreed to decide whether police can arrest everyone in a car, including passengers, when officers find drugs hidden in the vehicle but everyone denies knowledge of the contraband.

The case comes out of Maryland, which lost the dispute in the state courts. However, 20 states joined Maryland in asking the Supreme Court for review.

Though not scheduled, the justices should hear argument next fall.

The case began at 3:16 a.m. on Aug. 7, 1999, when Officer Jeffrey Snyder of the Baltimore County Police Department stopped a Nissan Maxima for speeding.

The car's owner, Donte Partlow, was driving. Joseph Jermaine Pringle was a passenger in the front seat. Otis Smith was a passenger in the rear seat.

When Partlow opened the glove compartment to search for his registration, the officer saw a "large quantity of rolled up money" inside, according to court records.

The officer asked Partlow for permission to search the vehicle, and Partlow said yes. Besides the $763 in the glove compartment, the search uncovered five plastic bags of what appeared to be cocaine inside a back seat arm rest, again according to court records.

All three of the men denied knowledge of the drugs but all three were arrested. At the station house, Pringle waived his rights and ultimately confessed that the drugs belonged to him and said that neither Partlow nor Smith knew about them.

In court, Pringle's attorney moved unsuccessfully to suppress the evidence, and a state jury convicted him of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Though an intermediate appeals court supported the police, the Court of Appeals of Maryland eventually reversed in a divided opinion.

The majority of the state appeals court said finding cocaine in the back arm rest was insufficient "probable cause" to arrest a passenger in the front seat. Nor did arresting everyone in the case make the case constitutionally acceptable.

"Simply stated," the majority said, "a policy of arresting everyone until somebody confesses is constitutionally unacceptable."

The Fourth Amendment bans "unreasonable searches and seizures," but the Supreme Court generally supports a warrantless arrest if an officer has "probable cause" to believe a person has committed a crime.

After losing in the state courts, Maryland asked the Supreme Court of the United States for review, saying the case included several elements not yet clarified by the high court.

Twenty other states, all of which have laws allowing officers to make an arrest when he or she has "probable cause" to believe crimes have been committed, joined Maryland in asking for Supreme Court review.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the states said the Maryland court had "muddled" Fourth Amendment law by imposing a higher constitutional standard at the time of arrest than the government must meet later at trial.

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(No. 02-809, Maryland vs. Pringle.)

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