Court limits authority of police to search bags that appear abandoned Judges note protection of Fourth Amendment in drug conviction reversal

November 13, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court made it more difficult for police to catch drug dealers at highway rest stops yesterday, ruling that officers cannot open an unclaimed suitcase unless it obviously has been abandoned.

The Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of Labaron Stanberry of Jersey City, N.J., saying that state troopers had no reason to open his suitcase during a search while his bus was stopped at the Maryland House restaurant on Interstate 95 near Aberdeen.

Gary E. Bair, head of the attorney general's criminal appeals division, said the office may file a petition asking the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling because it has broader implications than police searches of luggage at highway rest stops.

Two plainclothes troopers boarded the Greyhound bus in which Stanberry was riding Aug. 16, 1993, and began a routine "drug interdiction" check of passengers and their luggage, after the driver mistakenly told the troopers that all of the passengers had reboarded, according to court records.

When no one claimed the black suit bag that Stanberry had left in an overhead rack, troopers opened it and found 100 bags of cocaine, records show.

Moments later, Stanberry, 32, returned to the bus and was arrested. He admitted being paid $300 to escort the bag on the trip from New York to Richmond, Va., records said.

He was convicted of importing cocaine by Harford County Circuit Judge William O. Carr in 1994 and sentenced to three years.

But the state's highest court reversed both the conviction and the 1995 Court of Special Appeals decision that affirmed it, ruling that opening the bag violated Stanberry's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

The Court of Appeals also said the troopers had no right to assume that the bag was abandoned just because no one initially claimed it.

"Under the totality of the circumstances, the troopers should not have inferred abandonment from the [other] passengers' silence," Judge Irma S. Raker wrote in a 26-page decision.

Raker noted that abandoned property is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. But she said whether property is abandoned must be decided on a case-by-case basis, depending on factors that include the location of the abandoned property, its condition, how long it has remained untouched, and whether someone was asked to watch it before it was left.

Bair said the ruling may make it more difficult for police in situations where they approach a group to ask about a container that they suspect has drugs.

"Say three people are sitting near a bag in a playground and a police officer asks about it. Can the police assume it's abandoned if the people don't respond? The answer now may be no, because the people don't have to say anything and their silence isn't evidence of abandonment," he said.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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