Court of Appeals ruling voids drug conviction


April 13, 2007

Maryland's highest court yesterday threw out the drug conviction of a 27-year-old Northwest Baltimore man, saying that city police did not have sufficient cause to stop the man's car and subsequently find marijuana.

In a 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that "police did not have an articulable reasonable suspicion to stop [Lamont Anthony] Lewis based upon the fact that he `almost' hit a police car."

Lewis was parked in his sport utility vehicle near the area of Oswego Avenue and Park Heights Avenue in April 2005 when three Baltimore police officers in a patrol car - who were searching for a rape suspect - pulled up alongside his vehicle and stopped just in front.

When Lewis put on his turn signal and turned away from the curb, according to the court's majority opinion, his vehicle almost hit the back of police cruiser.

Two of the police officers got out and asked Lewis to get out. "When Lewis stepped out, a plastic bag containing marijuana fell to the ground, and the SUV, driverless, drifted approximately 20 feet down Oswego Avenue," the court wrote. Police subsequently searched Lewis' vehicle and found more drugs.

A Circuit Court judge ruled that police did not have proper cause to search the vehicle but permitted prosecutors to use the evidence from the plastic bag that fell out of the SUV when Lewis got out. Lewis was convicted of marijuana possession and sentenced to one year in prison.

But the Court of Appeals found that the first bag of marijuana was improperly obtained by police. "That he `almost' hit the police car did not constitute a traffic infraction nor illegal activity," Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote on behalf of the majority.

In the dissent, retired Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky wrote that "negligent driving need merely endanger person or property. There is no requirement for impact."

"This case will be cited for the proposition that there can be no traffic stop for violating the prohibition against negligent driving, unless there has been a collision, Rodowsky wrote.

Prosecutors say that without the evidence, they have no choice but to drop the case.

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