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Md. high court weighs whether handcuffs constitute detention or arrest

Search of unarmed suspect’s hotel room yielded more than 100 grams of cocaine

ANNAPOLIS – A public defender and an assistant Maryland attorney general battled at the state’s top court Thursday over whether keeping an unarmed, illegal-drug suspect handcuffed in a Baltimore County parking lot constituted an unlawful arrest that should invalidate the subsequent discovery of more than 100 grams of cocaine in his hotel room.

Defense counsel Claire Caplan told the Court of Appeals that keeping Ira Chase in handcuffs after police determined he was unarmed violated his constitutional right against unreasonable seizure because the officers at that point lacked reasonable suspicion that he was armed and probable cause to arrest him.

But Christopher Mason, arguing for the state, said the continued handcuffing of Chase while the officers and a police dog searched Chase’s car for drugs was not an unlawful arrest but a justified measure to detain him to protect the officers’ safety.

“Drugs and guns go together,” Mason said in explaining the Baltimore County detectives’ continued concern for their safety despite having found no weapons on either Chase or Michael DeLillo, who was with him in the Days Inn parking lot in Gwynn Oak.

The detectives testified they suspected Chase was selling drugs to DeLillo on that early Sept.10, 2013, evening because their two cars were parked next to each other in a nearly empty parking lot in the high-crime area.

The officers said they became concerned about weapons and their own safety when they saw Chase and DeLillo reach under the seats of Chase’s Jeep Cherokee and put their hands in their pockets.

The detectives then removed both men from the car, handcuffed them and discovered they were unarmed.

Alert from police dog

While the men were still handcuffed, the police dog alerted the officers to the presence of drugs in the Cherokee, at which point they arrested him and DeLillo, who was not a party to the high-court appeal.

A subsequent search of Chase found he was carrying a key to a room at the Days Inn. The officers secured a search warrant and found 108 grams of cocaine in the room.

Chase, through counsel, argued he was unlawfully arrested – not merely detained – once the detectives established he was unarmed but kept him in handcuffs anyway. That arrest, in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures, rendered the subsequent search of his hotel room unlawful, Chase added.

When Baltimore County Circuit Judge Colleen Cavanaugh rejected that argument, Chase pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with intent to distribute but preserved his right to appeal. Cavanaugh sentenced him to one year in prison, all suspended, and one year’s probation.

On Aug. 31, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld Chase’s guilty plea, saying he was merely detained and the search was lawful. Chase then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

Skeptical judges

Pressing Chase’s appeal, Caplan argued that having “reasonable suspicion” that a drug deal is occurring does not give officers reasonable suspicion that the participants are armed or have easy access to weapons. Thus, once the officers established Chase and DeLillo were unarmed, the officers were obliged to remove the handcuffs.

The officers’ failure to remove them converted a detention into an unlawful arrest because they had no probable cause to suspect criminality, Caplan said.

Police cannot rely on “a generalization” that participants in a “hand-to-hand drug transaction” are always armed and can therefore keep them handcuffed, Caplan said.

Because the arrest was unlawful, the subsequent evidence from the hotel room should have been deemed inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” she told the high court.

But several judges appeared skeptical.

Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment, said courts have upheld the handcuffing of suspects while drug searches were conducted.

Judge Shirley M. Watts wondered aloud whether any courts have ruled that police officers cannot handcuff criminal suspects based on a reasonable concern they presented a safety threat.

Caplan responded that the officers’ concern with Chase’s “dangerousness and possession of a weapon” ended once they determined he was unarmed.

But Judge Sally D. Adkins said removing the handcuffs might be worse for suspects, whom police would somehow still have to detain while the drug investigation continued.

“There has to be some superior force just to make them stay,” Adkins said.

Caplan argued officers could keep watch of suspects short of using handcuffs or force.

But Mason, arguing for the state, said the detectives’ use of handcuffs to detain the suspects short of arrest was “reasonable” because the officers’ attention was divided between them and the search for drugs. Chase and DeLillo might have had weapons in the car or an accomplice in a hotel room they could have signaled, he added.

“The officers did what was reasonable to protect their safety,” Mason said.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Ira Chase v. State of Maryland, No. 85, September Term 2015.