Passengers should exit cars for police

December 29, 1996|By J. Joseph Curran Jr.

I AM WRITING in response to your Dec. 23 editorial ("Passengers: Exit on command?") regarding the argument I recently presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. As your editorial reflects, the Supreme Court did question me about the inconveniences that may be faced by a passenger who is asked to step out of the vehicle.

These are important questions that both I and Janet Reno, the attorney general of the United States, seriously considered in deciding to request the Supreme Court to allow police officers to ask passengers to exit a stopped vehicle. To understand why we have asked for this discretion, one needs to understand the other side of the equation.

As a society, we place the responsibility for keeping us safe from harm upon the shoulders of the men and women in law enforcement. When this responsibility brings officers to stop a vehicle at 3 a.m. in an abandoned area, we ask them to put themselves at risk of their lives. Our experiences here in Maryland, the shootings of state police officers Edward Plank and Theodore Wolf, confirm that much.

The limited constitutional principle that I advocated would authorize an officer to ask the passengers in a vehicle with darkened windows, or a van, to step out of the vehicle before approaching it. Officers in 20 states and five federal circuits already have this discretion and exercise it well, with no history of families, children or the elderly standing in a snowstorm by the side of the road.

I believe it is important for Maryland law enforcement officers to have the same ability to assess the risk that they will face from passengers. Police officers already have the authority to order the drivers out, and we know from our own experience driving on Maryland roads that this discretion isn't abused.

While I recognize that in some circumstances some passengers may not wish to get out of the car, on balance, I think it is important to safeguard our law enforcement officers and give them the ability to defuse a potentially lethal situation and separate the passenger intent on doing him harm from the gun that may end the officer's life.

J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Baltimore

The writer is attorney general for the state of Maryland.

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