ANNAPOLIS -- Among lawyers, evidence seized illegally is called the fruit of the poisonous tree.
Yesterday, that fruit killed a case against a Frederick County man who admitted he was planning to sell the cocaine found in a car where he was sitting.
A divided Court of Appeals ordered prosecutors to drop drug charges against Thomas E. Ott III, ruling that he had been arrested illegally and the subsequent search that turned up three bags of cocaine and a mirror with white, powdery residue was illegal as well.
According to court records, Mr. Ott and Sandra Sorenson, also of Frederick, were sitting in Ms. Sorenson's car parked on the lot of a mall in Frederick about 1:40 a.m. Jan. 5, 1990, when a Frederick County sheriff's deputy, identified only as Corporal Fogle, approached the car and asked for identification.
The corporal checked with his headquarters and found an outstanding warrant for Mr. Ott's arrest for failure to appear in a civil case. The warrant, however, had been canceled a week earlier but never taken off the department's computer. Corporal Fogle arrested Mr. Ott, who was sitting in the driver's seat, and began searching the car. When he found the drugs in the glove compartment, he also arrested Ms. Sorenson.
But Frederick County Circuit Judge Mary Ann Stepler ruled that the drugs could not be used as evidence, destroying the prosecutor's case before the trial started.
The Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's intermediate appellate court, reversed that decision, finding that the arrest may have been based on an invalid warrant, but that it was done in "good faith."
But a six-judge majority of the state's highest court rejected that reasoning. The arresting officer may not have realized the warrant was outdated, but the department should have kept its computer up to date, the court ruled.
"Allowing outdated, inaccurate information to remain in the computer" could place "citizens at the risk of being deprived of liberty," Judge Robert M. Bell wrote for the majority.
Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, the lone dissenter, said he shared "the majority's concern that the police operated computer should reflect" accurate information, but added that he does not believe "the delay in this case amounts to . . . misconduct or negligence."