Supreme Court agrees to clarify police authority in traffic stops Md. case brings up issue of officers' safety

June 18, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, heeding a plea by the state of Maryland, agreed yesterday to spell out the authority of police to order all passengers out of cars they have stopped, to control occupants' movements.

At issue is the constitutionality of a police order, after a car is stopped for a traffic violation, that all the passengers get out -- a move that the state contends is required to assure police safety.

Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled in August that the Constitution's Fourth Amendment does not allow police to routinely order passengers out of vehicles. Only if police have reason to think that "extra caution" is required may they order all passengers to exit, the appeals court said.

That ruling, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said in a statement yesterday, could take away "one of an officer's most effective tools in a potentially dangerous situation -- being able to legally control the actions of a driver and passengers during a traffic stop. We must convince the Supreme Court to give the police this tool back."

Curran said he would argue the case himself when it comes up in the Supreme Court for a hearing, probably in January. A ruling is expected before next summer.

The issue has split lower courts. The New Jersey Supreme Court, like Maryland's highest court, has ruled against routine police orders for passengers to get out. But a federal appeals court ruled that police could require that in all traffic stops.

The Supreme Court voted last month to leave that appeals court ruling intact. It gave no explanation. Yesterday, however, when the Maryland case came up, the justices granted review.

The Maryland case is a sequel to a 1977 Supreme Court ruling. Then, the justices ruled that no constitutional rights were violated when police ordered the driver of a stopped vehicle to get out. That decision, however, applied only to the driver, not to passengers.

The Maryland case stems from an incident on Interstate 95 in Baltimore County in June 1994. David Hughes, a Maryland state trooper, saw a car moving at high speed and took up a chase.

The officer, with lights flashing on his patrol car, chased the vehicle for 1 1/2 miles, into Baltimore City, before it pulled over.

The driver got out on his own, and Hughes noticed that he seemed nervous. The passenger in the front seat, Jerry Lee Wilson, was sweating and appeared nervous, too, the officer said later.

The officer told Wilson to get out of the car. When he did, a packet of crack cocaine fell to the ground. Hughes drew his gun and arrested Wilson. Later, the officer said that movement in the vehicle had raised a suspicion that a gun could be in the car.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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