Supreme Court refuses to hear Md. appeal of traffic stop case Police in the state face contradictory choices

October 15, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After a string of court rulings and one new, unexplained order by the Supreme Court, police in Maryland must obey several somewhat contradictory rules on what they can do when they stop a vehicle for a traffic violation.

The latest twist came yesterday, when the Supreme Court issued an order turning aside a new appeal by the state of Maryland. The state had sought clarification on the roadside protocol that police must follow. The court did not say why it would not hear the case.

Here, in summary, are the choices police officers face:

They may order the driver to stay in the vehicle, or to get out, without needing a specific reason.

They may order the driver's passengers to get out, whether or not police have reason to do so.

They cannot routinely require passengers to remain in the vehicle. Police can do so only if they need to investigate the passengers separately. Otherwise, passengers are free to leave.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who was hoping for a ruling that would permit police to keep passengers inside vehicles, said yesterday the court's action was "a missed opportunity to give added protection to police officers."

Curran said he had wanted the court to give officers "the necessary tools to protect themselves during traffic stops," which he said had been the scene of thousands of assaults on police nationwide.

"Police face a myriad of potentially deadly situations every day, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be given the ability to control these situations by keeping the occupants in the car for a reasonable period," he added.

The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, has ruled twice on the case the Supreme Court bypassed yesterday. Each time, the decision was the same: A police officer who has stopped a vehicle for a traffic violation may not order a passenger to stay in the car unless the officer intends to investigate the passenger's role.

The Maryland court first ruled that way in March 1996 and did so again in May after the Supreme Court had told it to reconsider. The state's second appeal to the Supreme Court failed yesterday.

Earlier Supreme Court rulings -- including one this year in another Maryland case -- had given police more authority to control drivers and passengers after traffic stops. Those decisions generally concluded that police could order drivers and passengers out of vehicles but did not deal with orders to passengers to remain inside.

Yesterday's order was a denial of review of the new Maryland case and set no national precedent.

The new case involved an Eastern Shore man, Bruce Lamont Dennis. He was a passenger in a car that Wayne Foskey, a Princess Anne police officer, chased in November 1993 after the car ran a red light. The high-speed chase ended in a residential driveway.

The officer told Dennis, and the driver, to remain in the car. But Dennis got out and started to walk away. Foskey tackled him and arrested him after Dennis jabbed the policeman in the ribs.

Dennis was convicted of disorderly conduct and assault. Both convictions were thrown out by the Court of Appeals.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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