High court rejects plea to let police search luggage without warrant

November 19, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The state of Maryland failed yesterday in its plea to the Supreme Court to give police broad authority to look for evidence of crime in luggage that suspects leave with their friends.

Without explanation, the justices turned aside a state appeal seeking to reinstate the conviction of a Florida man for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute it.

The Maryland Court of Appeals last April struck down the conviction of Lenard B. Owens of Fort Pierce, Fla., because police -- acting on a tip -- had gone to an apartment in Hagerstown and had taken and opened a closed bag that Mr. Owens had left there overnight with a friend.

The friend, Marla Gardin, had allowed police into the apartment and had given them permission to search Mr. Owens' zippered bag. In it, the officers found crack cocaine weighing 325.8 grams, plus $1,880 in bills of $20 or larger. The crack had street-sale value of more than $78,000.

After Mr. Owens had been arrested and charged, he sought to block the use of the contents of his bag as evidence, contending that officers opened the bag without a search warrant and thus violated his right of privacy.

The evidence was allowed at his trial and he was convicted, sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined $10,000.

Maryland's highest court ruled that an individual who leaves closed luggage in the home of a friend overnight has a constitutional right to expect that the contents will remain private, and that police thus must get a warrant before opening such a bag.

The state's appeal to the Supreme Court argued that the Court of Appeals ruling gives "safe harbor to drug dealers, who commonly use third-party premises to store large quantities of drugs while plying their trade elsewhere."

Mr. Owens is now entitled to a new trial in Maryland courts.

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