Traffic Stop, Drug Bust Done Right, Court Rules

Crime Scenes

January 06, 2010|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Two summers ago in Aberdeen, Officer Michael Webster saw the driver of a blue Chrysler turn without using a signal.

He learned that the owner's driver's license had been suspended and pulled the car over at a 7-Eleven on West Bel Air Avenue.

Webster noticed that the passenger in the front seat, Michael Anthony Stokeling, was "very nervous," was "shaking" and was breathing fast. He called for a police dog, and Gunny quickly indicated that drugs might be found near the front doors.

Officer Todd Fanning saw what he believed to be marijuana residue in the car's center console, ordered Stokeling out of the car and patted him down for weapons. He asked the man why he was shaking and Stokeling replied, "It was cold out."

The temperature was near 80 degrees.

Fanning "noticed there was something large" in Stokeling's crotch area, but failing to find a weapon decided to strip-search him at the station. It was there that the man pulled out a bag with 15.5 grams of marijuana. He was charged, convicted and sentenced to 364 days in jail and a $750 fine.

Stokeling appealed his conviction, arguing that police had no right to search him because the dog had alerted police to drugs in the car but not on a specific individual.

Maryland's Court of Special Appeals disagreed and, in a ruling Dec. 30, upheld the search and the conviction. It seems like a no-brainer, but the ruling could be seen as expanding police powers on how they search suspects. Courts across the country seem to be constantly refining their positions on when an officer can and cannot search somebody before making an arrest.

Aberdeen Police Chief Randy Rudy, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, said the car stop and arrest were about as routine a case as possible and that he regards it as top-notch work by his officers. He was unaware that the case had been second-guessed, much less all the way to the state's second-highest court.

"There is nothing out of the ordinary about it," he said. "I think the officers applied some good observation skills."

And, the chief added, "I'm glad to see some common sense prevailing on the appeals court."

In the Aberdeen case, the court ruled that even though the initial stop was for a traffic infraction, subsequent events built reasonable suspicion of a more serious offense. "We have repeatedly recognized the connection that exists between guns and drugs," the court ruled.

So Officer Fanning "was justified in frisking the appellant for weapons," the court ruled, and further justified to detain him longer when he felt the object in the suspect's crotch, even if he knew it wasn't a gun or a knife.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a conviction of a Minnesota man in 1992 after officers searched a suspect for weapons, found none, but noticed "a small lump in the respondent's nylon jacket." The officer reached in and pulled out a bag of cocaine.

The justices concluded that "the pat-down had exceeded the scope of a permissible search because the incriminating nature of the object was not immediately apparent to the officer and the officer determined that the item was contraband only after conducting a further search."

The Court of Appeals ruled that the Aberdeen case is different because Stokeling pulled out the bag of marijuana before police could strip-search him in the station. And even if police had searched him there, the judges ruled, it would have been permissible because the suspect was already under arrest because "police had probable cause to believe [he] was in possession of illegal drugs."

People who get stopped by police, especially in Baltimore, routinely complain that officers have no probable cause to detain them. For cops like Rudy, the constant refining of the rules means more work for officers on the beat.

"There are constant hoops we have to jump through," he said.

This bust passed muster.

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