It was the most routine of drug arrests.
Baltimore detectives Troy Taylor and John Rice were sitting in an unmarked car on West Lombard Street, using binoculars to watch a busy corner a half-block away.
Taylor watched one man reach into the back of his pants and take out a clear plastic bag containing "several small, white objects." The officer saw the man remove some of the objects from the bag and hand them to two other men, who then handed over money.
"Taylor testified that based on his training and experience, he believed he had just witnessed the sale of narcotics," according to the Maryland Court of Appeals.
The cops rushed the corner and arrested Chuckie Donaldson, 37, of West Baltimore. They found a bag filled with 14 capsules of heroin in his back pocket. A jury found him guilty of possession of drugs with intent to distribute and a Circuit Court judge sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
The suspect's lawyer appealed on several fronts challenging the authority of the police and what the attorney said were inflammatory statements a prosecutor made during trial. Appellate judges sided with the police but took issue with the prosecutor, threw out the conviction and ordered a new trial.
The case illustrates the frustrations and difficulties in combating drugs. Here are cops lying in wait to clear one man from one of the city's hundreds of drug corners and trying to make a clean case, even without seeing precisely what was being sold. We also have a prosecutor appealing to jurors — inappropriately, it turns out — that "drug dealers are the root of all evil" and that the defendant is the perfect example.
Taylor and Rice arrested Donaldson on Dec. 18, 2006.
His attorney tried unsuccessfully to suppress the drugs that the cops found in his client's back pocket, arguing that Taylor and Rice had no probable cause to arrest Donaldson because they could not discern whether he was selling drugs or something else, such as candy.
"That would be a weird way to keep your candy to sell on the street," Taylor testified at the trial in 2007. "In the rear of your pants. If you conceal something that way, you are concealing something that is illegal, most of the time."
The state's highest court agreed.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, the judges said "there can be probable cause to arrest an individual who has exchanged an unidentified item for money, if the totality of the circumstances supports the conclusion that the exchange involved an unlawful substance."
Score one for the cops.
But then comes the next issue.
Donaldson's lawyer noted the prosecutor's flourishing statements on the city's vast drug trade, calling dealers the "root of all evil" and pointing to Donaldson and saying, "The problem is seated over there."
Donaldson's lawyer argued that the state was "effectively suggesting to the jury that it should convict [his client] in order to prevent drug abuse."
Said the Court of Appeals: "The inescapable reference was that the jury could combat drug dealing and drug use generally by convicting [Donaldson]." Since he was only on trial for a specific charge of dealing drugs on a specific day at a specific time on a specific corner, that statement went too far, the judges said.
Joe Sviatko, a spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said prosecutors "are reviewing the opinion and the case with an eye toward retrying it."
He declined to comment on the ruling itself. But his office got some support from Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., who in a lone dissent, wrote that while it was improper for the prosecutor to single out Donaldson as "the problem," he said it "was not likely to influence the jury."