The state's highest court gave police new guidance yesterday on when they may pull over suspects, ruling that Frederick police violated a man's constitutional rights in 1997 by stopping him without justification.
The Court of Appeals, in a unanimous ruling, criticized police for stopping Rondorian Wayne Cartnail because he was driving a car similar to the getaway car used in a robbery and because he and a passenger, like the three robbery suspects, are black.
"By refusing to harbor the fruits of unconstitutional seizures, we give teeth to the notion that the courts cannot accord police carte blanche to pick and choose whom to stop based on some 'hunch' that a motorist, or his or her passengers, are involved in criminal activity," wrote Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr.
The outcome was praised by civil liberties advocates, who say courts in recent years have chipped away at the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches.
"It's nice to see the court say a police officer having a hunch that somebody might have been involved in a crime is not enough to justify pulling him over and intruding on his liberty," said Dwight Sullivan, managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland.
Sullivan said a more stringent standard for making stops would protect minorities from being targeted unfairly by police.
"It isn't going to be the white guy in the BMW who gets pulled over on a hunch; it's going to be the two African-Americans in the Mazda," he said.
The decision was handed down amid heightened racial tension involving the police in Frederick. Last month, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demanded the removal of Frederick Police Chief Regis R. Raffensberger, charging that he has exacerbated tensions between his department and black residents.
Yesterday's ruling, which reversed the Court of Special Appeals and the trial court, does not set a legal precedent. Law governing when police may make stops is well-established. The Supreme Court has said a host of factors should be used to determine whether "reasonable suspicion" exists.
In this case, the Court of Appeals ruled that the facts of the case fell short of those criteria. Maryland can ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, but no decision has been made.
"This is not the kind of thing the Supreme Court ordinarily would be interested in," said Assistant Attorney General Gary E. Bair.
Although the case revolved around specific facts, Blair said the ruling will help police departments in Maryland decide whether to stop motorists they think might have committed a crime.
"Any time you have a Court of Appeals decision, it gives people a better sense of, 'OK, if my facts are real close to these, there is not going to be enough suspicion,'" Bair said.
The police officer who stopped Cartnail discovered that he was driving with a revoked license, and Cartnail was convicted of driving without a valid license. He was sentenced to four months in prison, followed by two years of probation.
Cartnail was pulled over about 3 a.m. Aug. 26, 1997, about two miles from a Frederick hotel that had been robbed about an hour earlier. Witnesses told police that three suspects fled in a gold or tan Mazda. Cartnail was driving a gold Nissan.
The state argued that the officer acted reasonably, particularly given the scarcity of cars on the road and Cartnail's proximity to the crime scene: "A gold Nissan with two black males substantially matched the description with which the police were working, and [Cartnail's] vehicle was hardly selected at random or on a 'hunch' as he insists."
But Harrell, writing for the six other high court judges, disagreed. He concluded that the vague description of the getaway car pointed to "seemingly infinite combinations of drivers." And he wrote that, in the hour and 15 minutes between the robbery and Cartnail's arrest, the robbers could gotten as far as Pennsylvania or Virginia.
Even though few drivers are on the road in the early morning hours, Harrell wrote, "a driver is still entitled to privacy at any time of the day and should not be disturbed by the police without constitutional authority."
Cartnail's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Mark Colvin, could not be reached for comment.