Gun charges dropped against NBA's Wilcox

Prosecutors say police illegally detained ex-UM athlete after traffic stop

August 10, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

Howard County prosecutors dropped a handgun charge yesterday against NBA player and former University of Maryland basketball star Christopher Wilcox, saying police illegally detained him after an alcohol-related traffic stop in June.

With his mother and other relatives in the courtroom, Wilcox, 22, stood before District Judge Alice P. Clark in a white, long-sleeved sweater and khaki pants for less than five minutes as the prosecutor explained that police should not have instructed a drug dog to sniff the car because Wilcox had already passed a sobriety test.

The Los Angeles Clipper was stopped on southbound U.S. 29 in Columbia on the morning of June 27 after an officer saw him struggling to stay in a lane. When the officer asked Wilcox if he had been drinking, he said: "Yes, I had one drink," according to court records.

The officer then called a canine unit for assistance and conducted a field sobriety test, which Wilcox passed before the arrival of the drug-sniffing dog. The dog reacted to the silver-colored BMW that Wilcox was driving, and the officer asked if there was anything inside the vehicle.

Wilcox, of Boulder Ridge Road in Laurel, said he had a gun in the car. His attorney, Rebecca Nitkin, said yesterday that Wilcox had a permit to carry the .357 Ruger revolver in North Carolina but not in Maryland. No drugs were found.

Stop `legitimate'

"The original stop was legitimate," Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said. "He did have an odor of alcohol on his breath, but once he passed the test, at that point in time he should have been free to leave. The dog didn't arrive until a number of minutes later."

Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay said in a short statement yesterday that he disagreed with McCrone's decision to drop the charges and defended his officer's actions.

The issue of proper search-and-seizures often is a vexing one for law enforcement, and one that McCrone said prosecutors must evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

In January, the Supreme Court gave police the authority to check motorists with drug-sniffing dogs on two conditions: Officers must have pulled the driver over for a legitimate reason, such as speeding or driving with expired tags; and police can't "unreasonably prolong" the stop beyond the time required to complete the initial mission.

Case differences

In the Wilcox case, McCrone said, police had determined that he was sober enough to drive by the time a canine unit arrived. In the case before the Supreme Court, the dog and its handler circled the car as another Illinois state trooper wrote a warning for speeding.

Wilcox, a starter on the University of Maryland's national championship team as a sophomore, played two seasons at Maryland before being drafted by the Clippers in 2002. He signed a three-year contract worth a reported $6.1 million.

Wilcox did not comment on the case, but Nitkin said that he was carrying the gun because he was robbed at gunpoint while a player at the University of Maryland. Nitkin could not explain why there were loose bullets in the car or an empty casing found in the gun, saying that it could have been fired during target practice.

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