Md. cocaine-arrest case argued before high court

Justices weigh authority of police to hold all in car where drugs are found

November 04, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A routine traffic stop in Reisterstown four years ago that netted Baltimore County police a small amount of crack cocaine was argued before the Supreme Court yesterday in a constitutional case that could expand police powers.

The justices' decision, expected later this term, has the potential to elevate a traffic stop into important precedent, giving broader definition to the constitutional requirement of probable cause before police can make an arrest.

Baltimore County police Officer Jeffrey Snyder pulled over the car for speeding on Aug. 7, 1999. In a subsequent search of the Nissan Maxima, he discovered the drugs and arrested the driver and both passengers, including Joseph J. Pringle, who was sitting in the front seat.

Pringle later said the five small bags of crack stashed behind the rear armrest belonged to him; he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of and intent to distribute drugs.

But in spirited arguments yesterday before the court, his lawyer said the officer overstepped his authority and had no right to arrest Pringle. Pringle's mere presence in the car was insufficient grounds to link him to the drugs, argued Deputy Public Defender Nancy S. Forster.

"Here we have concealed drugs and nothing more than Mr. Pringle's presence," said Forster. Police had more reason to arrest the car's driver and the passenger sitting beside the drugs in the back seat than her client, she argued.

Maryland's solicitor general and a lawyer for the Bush administration countered that police had enough evidence to arrest all three people in the car and also to charge all of them.

"There is an inference in this case - a strong inference - that all three people in the car were engaged in a common enterprise" to sell drugs, said Gary E. Bair, state solicitor general.

While several justices expressed concerns about giving police too broad a mandate to arrest, the remarks and questions of even the more liberal members on the generally pro-police court suggested calibrated support for Maryland's position.

Disputing Forster's claim that Pringle sat too far away from the crack to be arrested, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "Here it was a small car - it isn't hard for somebody in the front seat to turn around and reach to the armrest" to hide the drugs.

Although the Supreme Court has addressed many cases involving probable cause, it has not addressed instances of multiple arrests of people in a car or hotel room.

"If they try to give us more specific guidance - not just a recitation of the facts of this case - it could be a very significant case," said Ronald J. Bacigal, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who is writing about the issue.

After stopping the car at High Falcon Road and Route 140, Snyder obtained the driver's permission to search inside. Besides the crack, he found a roll of $763 cash in the glove compartment.

When none of the car occupants would claim ownership of the drugs, the officer arrested all three. At the police station, Pringle confessed that the money and drugs were his and that he planned to either sell or trade the drugs for sex.

The other two in the car were released.

Maryland's Court of Appeals ruled 4-3 that the police lacked probable cause to arrest Pringle.

During yesterday's arguments, however, some Supreme Court justices seemed swayed by the evidence Snyder had relied on to arrest Pringle: the smallness of the car, the amount of drugs found and the large sum of money recovered.

"I think the inference was possible that somebody in that car was dealing drugs," said Justice David H. Souter. "Doesn't that inference support probable cause?"

Justice John Paul Stevens, on the other hand, said he was "not sure" the roll of money supported probable cause "because there's seemingly nothing illegal about carrying money," he said.

More justices seemed worried that Maryland and the Bush administration were advocating the right of police to arrest everyone in a car found to have drugs, no matter the circumstances.

Suppose a child was a passenger in the car, said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "Wouldn't different factors enter into it?" she asked Sri Srinivasan, who argued for the U.S. Solicitor General's office.

Srinivasan assured O'Connor that probable cause depended upon the "particular facts" of the case.

In other action yesterday, the court:

Refused to enter the long-running fight over a large monument depicting the Ten Commandments and the renegade judge who wants to put them back on display in an Alabama courthouse.

Declined to block a lawsuit over a magazine's critical safety reports about the Suzuki Samurai, a defeat for news organizations that wanted the court to clarify free-speech protections for journalists.

Said it will use a dispute over wilderness areas to decide what legal rights people have when they're angered by government action - or inaction.

Refused to protect a Dow Chemical-owned company from damages in asbestos lawsuits in West Virginia. Union Carbide argued that the state's system of handling large asbestos cases is unconstitutional.

Reinstated a death sentence in the case of an Ohio inmate convicted of killing a convenience store clerk 20 years ago. A lower federal court had lifted the sentence imposed on Gregory Esparza.

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