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Top Md. court: Police have broad authority to search drunken drivers’ cars

Police have broad authority to search without a warrant the cars of drivers they arrest on suspicion of drunken driving, Maryland’s top court has unanimously ruled.

An arrest for suspected drunken driving generally provides officers with “reason to believe” that open bottles will be found in the passenger compartments, which is all the officer needs to conduct a warrantless search incident to the arrest, the Court of Appeals said, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Because the search is valid, any evidence of criminality found in the vehicle is generally admissible in court, the Court of Appeals added.

The court rendered its decision in upholding Efrain Taylor’s conviction in Dorchester County Circuit Court for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. An officer found the drugs in the front-seat armrest during a search for open bottles in the vehicle moments after Taylor’s arrest on suspicion of drunken driving.

Most significant for the Court of Appeals was the arresting officer’s trial testimony that, in his experience, drunken drivers have open bottles of alcohol in the passenger compartment. That testimony indicated the officer had “reasonable articulable suspicion” justifying a warrantless search without violating the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches, the high court held.

“In this case there was, and, we suspect in most cases of an arrest for driving under the influence, there is likely to be, a basis in fact – the arresting officer’s own prior experiences or his or her knowledge of the experience of fellow officers, which can be articulated, of finding open containers or other evidence related to the offense inside the passenger compartment,” Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote Monday for the high court. “It is a solid part of ‘reasonable articulable suspicion’ law that reasonable suspicion may be derived from an officer’s own experience or his or her knowledge of the experience of other officers.”

Looking to Supreme Court

Wilner, however, noted the law remains somewhat murky regarding vehicle searches incident to arrest.

The Supreme Court has fomented confusion in these cases by using the phrases “reasonable articulable suspicion” and “reasonable to believe” in its decisions regarding when the police can conduct a warrantless search, Wilner wrote.

While the Court of Appeals based its decision on its belief that the two phrases are interchangeable, Wilner urged the justices to bring clarity.

“Ultimately, the Supreme Court may need to clarify what it meant and, given the vast number of traffic stops that occur every day throughout the country, we hope that it will do so,” he wrote.

Byron L. Warnken, author of a treatise on Maryland criminal procedure, said the Court of Appeals’ reading of Supreme Court precedent is “probably right” but “a little better clarification from the Supreme Court” is warranted.

“The Court [of Appeals] even notes it is such a fine line and we’re parsing words here that we probably need a Supreme Court case to clarify,” said Warnken, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor.

Brian Saccenti, appellate division chief at the Maryland public defender’s office, said Tuesday that no decision has been made yet on whether the office and Taylor, its client, will ask the Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals’ decision.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals cited the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision that police had no constitutional justification for searching the car of a motorist who had just been arrested for driving on a suspended license. Evidence of that crime would be found in motor-vehicle-agency records, not in the automobile, the Supreme Court said in overturning a cocaine-possession conviction in Arizona v. Gant.

The justices added in Gant that a warrantless search incident to an arrest is justified if it was “reasonable [for police] to believe evidence related to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”

“The offense of arrest will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee’s vehicle and any containers therein,” the court held.

The office of Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh in a statement praised the Court of Appeals’ “commonsense application of the principle announced” in Gant.

“Under most circumstances, when a motorist is arrested for driving under the influence, it is reasonable for a police officer to conclude that evidence of that crime might be found in the passenger compartment of the vehicle,” the statement read. “The officer can, therefore, conduct a search for such evidence incident to the lawful arrest.”

Failed sobriety test

Cambridge police officer Chad Mothersell testified that he pulled Taylor over at 1 a.m. on March 1, 2013, after seeing him speed and fail to stop at a stop sign. Taylor’s breath smelled of alcohol, his speech was slurred, his eyes were bloodshot and glassy, he failed a sobriety test and he said he had been at a local bar, Mothersell said in explaining his decision to make the arrest.

With Taylor in the back seat of Mothersell’s police car, another officer searched Taylor’s vehicle and found the cocaine. Taylor was sentenced in July 2014 to 40 years in prison, with 20 years suspended.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction in a reported opinion last August.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Efrain Taylor v. State of Maryland, No. 75, September Term 2015.

Wilner, a retired judge, was specially assigned to hear the case in place of Judge Michele D. Hotten, who had recused herself.