Police given expanded traffic stop authority Md. case overturned

passengers affected

February 20, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Ruling yesterday in a Maryland case with nationwide impact, the Supreme Court gave police unlimited authority when they stop a vehicle to order all passengers -- as well as the driver -- to get out.

The outcome, growing out of a 1994 incident in Baltimore County, will affect millions of police traffic stops across the country. In Maryland alone, there are about a million traffic stops a year.

The Supreme Court ruled that it made no difference whether anyone in the car had done anything illegal or suspicious or posed any threat during the traffic stop. An order to step out of the car may be considered automatic and routine in every case, it said in a 7-2 decision written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

Because traffic stops pose risks to officers, the court added, police need authority to order everyone out in the open. In one recent year, the court noted, 5,762 officers were assaulted, and 11 were killed during traffic stops or pursuits.

The decision overturned a ruling by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in 1995. The state court said it would be unconstitutional for officers to order passengers out of stopped vehicles without some suspicion that they pose a danger or have broken the law.

"This decision should make every officer in the nation feel a little safer tonight," Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday. Curran, joined by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, had argued the case before the court in December.

Reno and Curran had encountered sharp questioning from several members of the court during that hearing, raising doubts about whether some justices thought police needed the added protection. But in the end, seven justices sided with Reno and Curran, and the court disposed of the case in a brief, six-page majority opinion.

"Now, every police officer across the nation will have the ability, when conditions warrant, to do that extra little thing to protect his or her safety," Curran said.

Not a frequent practice

"It is a practice that is not used very often," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents about 3,000 city police officers. "But police officers need to have this as an option. Car stops are one of the most dangerous duties an officer can perform."

The state had urged the court to go even further than it did yesterday and rule that police also may prevent every passenger from leaving the scene until a traffic stop has been completed. But the court said that issue was not before it.

The dispute over passengers dates back to a Supreme Court ruling in 1977. In that decision, the court allowed police to order all drivers out of stopped vehicles as a routine maneuver.

Since then, it has become unclear whether the court would extend the same rule to passengers. It did so yesterday in a case in which Maryland, joined by 26 other states, urged the court to expand the earlier ruling.

"Danger to an officer from a traffic stop is likely to be greater when there are passengers in addition to the driver in the stopped car," the chief justice said in the opinion.

Rehnquist acknowledged that passengers have more right to freedom during a traffic stop than drivers do, since they broke no traffic laws. But, he added, the passengers also might pose a danger to the officer if allowed to remain inside with potential access to weapons.

Besides, Rehnquist said, the intrusion on their privacy of being ordered out of the car is minimal.

Two justices disagree

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and John Paul Stevens dissented. They said the ruling will apply to every traffic stop "in which there is not even a scintilla of evidence of any potential risk to the police officer." It will affect "literally millions of other cases," they wrote.

The case before the court stemmed from a traffic pursuit that began on Interstate 95 in Baltimore County in June 1994. State Trooper David Hughes saw a car traveling south toward Baltimore City at high speed.

Hughes began a chase and clocked the car at 64 mph in a 55-mph zone. He pulled the car over in the city after a 1 1/2 -mile chase, and its driver, a Connecticut man identified in court papers only as McNichol, left the car without being ordered to do so. Three passengers were in the car.

A front-seat passenger, Jerry Lee Wilson of Florence, S.C., appeared nervous. When the officer ordered him out of the car, Wilson dropped a packet containing crack cocaine. He was arrested and charged with possessing cocaine with intent to distribute.

But Wilson later persuaded Judge Thomas J. Bollinger of Baltimore County Circuit Court to bar the cocaine as evidence. Wilson argued that the trooper had no basis to order him out of the car and that his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure had been violated.

Wilson apparently has not been found in recent months, his attorney had told the court, and thus cannot be prosecuted now on the crack charge.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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