Court limits when police may keep motorists in cars Officers required to have 'reasonable suspicion' of crime in traffic stops

March 14, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that a police officer making a traffic stop must have a "reasonable suspicion" that a passenger is involved in a crime before ordering him to remain in the vehicle, a decision that raised concerns about police safety.

"We feel very strongly that all the occupants of a car should be required to stay in the car, for the officer's safety," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3, which represents Baltimore officers. "You can't have a scenario of allowing people to get out and walk around. You just can't have that."

The unanimous decision by the Court of Appeals spells out for the first time a legal limit on police authority over passengers during a traffic stop.

Police officers, who say that traffic stops are among the most dangerous parts of their work, said it will be difficult to abide by the ruling.

"If I make a stop, I'm not going to let a passenger get out and walk around behind me. That's just not safe," said Sgt. John Somers of the state police barracks in Berlin.

Yesterday's Court of Appeals decision vacated the convictions of disorderly conduct and battery against Bruce Lamont Dennis, a passenger in a car stopped after the driver ran a red light in Princess Anne in Somerset County on Nov. 27, 1993.

The driver sped away from police and finally pulled into a driveway where Mr. Dennis got out of the car and walked away, despite repeated police orders to stop.

Officer Wayne Foskey of the Princess Anne Police Department chased Mr. Dennis, tackled him and arrested him after a struggle.

Somerset County Circuit Judge Daniel M. Long sentenced Mr. Dennis to 45 days in jail.

But appellate Judge Robert M. Bell said the officer had no reason to chase Mr. Dennis and tackle him, just because the driver had ignored police orders to pull over.

"There ordinarily is no reason to believe that a passenger in a vehicle is guilty, as an accessory or aider and abettor, of the traffic offense with which the driver may be charged," Judge Bell wrote.

Gary Bair, chief of the appellate division for the Maryland Attorney General's office, said yesterday the court seemed to be saying "that in this case, there just wasn't enough evidence to detain the passenger."

Lt. Richard Koller, supervisor of the Baltimore County Police Academy, said officers are instructed to keep occupants in the car during stops, but conceded that nothing in the law requires them to stay. George E. Burns Jr., who handled the appeal for the Maryland Public Defender's office, said the decision offers added protection from illegal detainment, but only in traffic stops where police have no reason to suspect criminal activity.

"What this does is protect passengers who are in the wrong place at the wrong time," Mr. Burns said. "I think it's a wonderful decision."

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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