A Baltimore County judge ruled yesterday that a police search of a van driven by a Chinese man who spoke little English and who was suspected of participating in a home invasion minutes earlier was "reasonable and permissible."
Chun-Hua "Crazy Guy" Liu, 23, is one of four men from New York charged in the January robbery, burglary and assault on a local restaurant owner's son at the family's home in Glencoe. Authorities believe the group is part of an Asian gang targeting wealthy Asian business owners.
John J. Pikulski, an attorney for Liu, argued yesterday during a motions hearing in county Circuit Court that his client could not have granted voluntary consent for police to search the van he was driving when he was pulled over at 12:45 p.m. Jan. 10 at York and Padonia roads.
Struggling to communicate with Liu and two passengers -- all of whom speak Mandarin -- officers asked whether there was someone Liu could call to translate for them, two patrol officers testified at the hearing. Liu apparently understood enough English to dial "his boss," then handed his cell phone to the officers, they testified.
Asked through the makeshift interpreter whether the police could search the van, Liu held out his arms and gestured toward the van, Officer Michael L. Strausner told the judge. Officer Candice M. Stelmack, who relayed questions to the man on the phone to ask the suspect in Chinese, further testified that Liu had said, "Yes, it's OK."
But Pikulski argued that there was no way to know for sure what the man told Liu. "There was a game of telephone going on," he said. "This isn't a kid's game. This is high-level constitutional rights.
"We don't know if the person [translating for police] said, 'You're in trouble. You better do what they say,' " Pikulski said, adding that any consent granted under those circumstances cannot be considered voluntary.
Prosecutor John Cox told Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. that even if Liu had not consented, police had enough reason to conduct a search without a warrant.
Liu was stopped 13 minutes after police were dispatched to a home on Belfast Road, after motorists had stopped to help a man who was walking, gagged and with his hands bound, in the middle of the road, according to court documents.
The man told police that someone rang his doorbell about noon and four men forced their way into the house, kicking him to the ground, tying his hands and ankles with plastic and duct tape, knocking off his glasses and taping his mouth and eyes.
A police search found in the front yard a backpack containing a $1,500 laptop computer and $24,800 worth of jewelry -- all of which was missing from the house, according to court documents. Also missing was $1,500.
Liu is charged with robbery, burglary, second-degree assault and two counts of theft.