The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined without comment to hear the appeal of a convicted Cambridge drug offender who claimed police violated his constitutional rights by searching his car without a warrant following his roadside arrest on suspicion of drunken driving.
Efrain Taylor had argued, through counsel, that police lacked the requisite reasonable suspicion of criminality to conduct the search, in which officers found cocaine in the front-seat armrest. As a result, he argued, the officers violated Taylor’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
Maryland’s top court upheld Taylor’s conviction last May, ruling that an arrest for suspected drunken driving generally provides officers with “reason to believe” that open bottles might be found in the vehicles’ passenger compartments. Such reasonable belief is all the police need to conduct a warrantless search incident to arrest, the Court of Appeals held.
Supreme Court precedent holds that once a search is deemed valid, any evidence of criminality found in the vehicle will generally be admissible in court.
In his failed request that the justices hear Taylor’s appeal, Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe stated that the “reason to believe” standard provides individuals arrested on suspicion of drunken driving with insufficient Fourth Amendment protection.
To conduct a constitutional search, police need at least “reasonable suspicion” based on “more than the arresting officer’s unquantified experience” that examining the vehicle’s interior will uncover evidence related to the suspected offense, in this case drunken driving, DeWolfe wrote to the justices in October.
DeWolfe’s decision to seek Supreme Court review on Taylor’s behalf was in keeping with the Court of Appeals’ suggestion in its ruling that clarification from the justices is needed with regard to searches of vehicles incident to arrest.
Judge Alan M. Wilner, in writing for Maryland’s high court, said the justices have fomented confusion in their past decisions by using the phrases “reasonable articulable suspicion” and “reasonable to believe” in describing when police can conduct a warrantless search.
“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.
But Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, in successfully urging the justices not to hear Taylor’s appeal, said the warrantless search of the vehicle passed constitutional muster.
“Because of the close temporal connection between alcohol and the operation of the car in arrests for drunk driving, courts have held that evidence of the offense of arrest may be found in the vehicle, and therefore a search of the vehicle is permitted based on the offense itself,” Frosh wrote last month.
He added that the justices should let the Court of Appeals’ decision stand without review because “reasonable to believe” is the legal equivalent of “reasonable suspicion” under Supreme Court jurisprudence, as interpreted by lower courts, including the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Frosh’s brief was cosigned by Assistant Attorneys General Carrie J. Williams and Benjamin A. Harris. Williams, who directs the attorney general’s criminal appeals division, was counsel of record in the case.
DeWolfe’s brief was co-signed by Assistant Maryland Public Defender Daniel Kobrin, Taylor’s counsel of record at the Supreme Court.
The case was docketed at the Supreme Court as Efrain Taylor v. State of Maryland, No. 16-467.
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 backseat of Mothersell’s police car, another officer searched Taylor’s vehicle and found the cocaine.
Taylor was subsequently convicted in Dorchester County Circuit Court of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and 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 in August 2015. The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Efrain Taylor v. State of Maryland, No. 75, September Term 2015.