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Top Md. court: Handcuffing suspect does not automatically constitute arrest

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Lynne Bataglia. (File)

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Lynne Bataglia. (File)

The use of handcuffs to detain a suspect does not constitute an arrest requiring probable cause if an officer reasonably suspects the person may be armed, the state’s top appellate court has ruled.

The Court of Appeals also found Friday that an officer’s decision to continue to restrain a suspect after frisking him and finding no weapons still may not rise to the level of an arrest if the suspect’s car has not yet been searched and the officer fears for his safety or the safety of bystanders.

Ira Chase, who pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with intent to distribute after police found more than 100 grams of cocaine in his Baltimore County hotel room in 2013, said police violated his constitutional right to be free of unreasonable seizure when they asked him to get out of his Jeep and handcuffed him in the parking lot of a Days Inn near Security Boulevard.

The officers had no reason to suspect that he was armed, Chase argued. Even if there was reasonable suspicion to support the request for him to exit the car, he added, restraining him in handcuffs elevated the investigatory stop to an arrest, for which the officers lacked probable cause.

Chase also argued that, after frisking him, the police did not have reasonable suspicion to believe that he and his companion were armed and dangerous and to keep him handcuffed. He alleged the actions of the officers amounted to an unlawful arrest and that evidence from the hotel room should have been deemed inadmissible.

Lawyers for the state countered the officers’ concern for their own safety was not eliminated by a simple search of Chase, and that releasing him from the handcuffs would have given him the chance to retrieve weapons that might have been in the vehicle.

The appellate court agreed, affirming both the trial court and Court of Special Appeals.

“The officers believed weapons may have been present because of the actions, mannerisms and ‘furtive’ movements of Chase and his companion as the Detective approached the Jeep,” retired Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, who was sitting by special assignment, wrote for a unanimous Court of Appeals. “Although no weapons were found on Chase’s person after the frisk, the officers continued to fear that weapons were in the Jeep. It was reasonable to detain Chase in handcuffs during the two minutes necessary to search the car and during the K-9 search.”

Suspected drug deal

The detectives testified that they suspected Chase of dealing drugs because his car was parked alongside his companion’s car in a hotel parking lot in a high-crime area.

While observing Chase and his associate, Michael DeLillo, in Chase’s car, they saw Chase reach under a seat and put his hand in his pocket, leading the officers to believe the two might be armed, the opinion states. The detectives, concerned for their own safety, removed the men from the Jeep and handcuffed them but found no weapons.

“The police officers possessed reasonable suspicion to stop Chase and ask him to leave the Jeep, based on their belief that Chase may have been armed and dangerous,” Battaglia wrote. “[The detectives] had observed behavior by Chase and his companion in the Jeep consistent with the hiding of illegal drugs as well as ‘furtive’ movements that suggested weapons could have been secreted in the vehicle.”

A police dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs in the vehicle, leading them to arrest Chase and DeLillo, the opinion states. After searching Chase and finding a key to a room at the hotel, the officers obtained a search warrant for the room and discovered 138 grams of cocaine.

Chase pleaded guilty to cocaine possession with intent to distribute while preserving his right to appeal and was sentenced to a year in prison, all suspended, and a year’s probation. The Court of Special Appeals upheld his guilty plea last year, and he sought review by the state’s top court, which held oral argument in May.

Claire Caplan, a public defender who represented Chase before the Court of Appeals, and Christopher Mason, an assistant Maryland attorney general who represented the state, both declined to comment Friday on the ruling.

The case is Ira Chase v. State of Maryland, No. 85, September Term 2015.