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.