ANNAPOLIS -- Reginald Gregory Benbow, serving a 10-year prison sentence after he was caught speeding with more than $3,000 worth of cocaine in his black BMW in November 1988, probably will go free in the wake of a Court of Appeals ruling yesterday.
The court said that police who had stopped him searched his car illegally.
"I don't see what we can do with this guy now," said Kreg P. Greer, the assistant attorney general who argued the case before Maryland's highest court. "I'm really surprised."
Mr. Benbow was stopped by statepolice who clocked his car at 93 miles an hour -- 38 mph over the limit -- in the southbound lanes of Interstate 795 near McDonogh Road. He identified himself and told Trooper Kevin Welkner that he had lost his Maryland driver's license, but the trooper checked with authorities in Maryland and Virginia and learned that Mr. Benbow's Virginia license had been suspended.
He arrested Mr. Benbow for driving with a suspended license and hauled him and his car off to the state police barracks, where the car was searched. Police found 29.4 grams of cocaine, $2,279 in cash, a beeper and traces of marijuana, according to court records, enough evidence to get a conviction for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
But the appeals court ruled that Trooper Welkner had no reason to arrest Mr. Benbow, because he had a valid Maryland driver's license. Hence, the trooper had no reason to search his car. And with no legal reason to search the car, the drugs and money could not be used as evidence, the court unanimously concluded.
Mr. Benbow testified at a preliminary hearing that he heard a dispatcher tell the trooper that his Maryland license was valid. Because the prosecution never contradicted that statement, the court had to assume it was true, wrote retired Judge Charles E. Orth Jr., who was specially assigned to the case.
Although Mr. Benbow clearlybroke the law by speeding and by failing to produce his license when police asked him for it, he could only be ticketed -- not arrested -- for those offenses under Maryland law. And even if his Virginia license was suspended, he couldn't be arrested for that because his Maryland license was valid, the court ruled.
In other action, the court overturned the conviction of a Cecil County man for driving while under the influence of alcohol, because prosecutors noted during the trial that Frank Leroy Krauss had refused to take a Breathalyzer test.
In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that although such information can be admitted, it must be relevant, and that in this case it wasn't.