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Md. high court upholds search of man who ran from police

In a decision addressing when police can constitutionally give chase, Maryland’s top court held Tuesday that officers were justified in seizing a person who ran from them while they were investigating who among a group drinking alcohol had thrown a bottle.

In its 5-2 decision, the Court of Appeals held Jamal Sizer’s speedy departure from the potential crime scene outside a Columbia shopping center gave the police “reasonable suspicion” he was the thrower. Without that suspected crime, Sizer’s flight would not have given police constitutional cause to give chase, the majority said, citing the “totality of the circumstances” and the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The police who seized and searched Sizer discovered he had a gun, which can now be introduced as evidence at his pending trial on illegal firearms possession.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals addressed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Illinois v. Wardlow that police were justified in stopping and frisking an individual who ran from them in a high-crime area on Chicago’s south side. While Columbia lacks the violence of south Chicago, the circumstance of the open drinking and bottle throwing justified giving chase to a suspect who ran, Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the Maryland high court’s majority.

“The officers suspected that members of the group were consuming alcohol; then the officers observed the improper disposal of the bottle,” Greene wrote. “Because a bottle was thrown to the ground, it logically follows that at least one member of Mr. Sizer’s group was responsible for the improper disposal of the bottle. Mr. Sizer’s flight, however, drew the officers’ attention away from the group and towards him individually.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office hailed the court’s decision in a statement.

“The court’s opinion reiterates the importance of examining the totality of the circumstances when analyzing police action for compliance with the Fourth Amendment,” the office stated. “We agree with the majority of the court that when all of the circumstances are considered, the police had reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Sizer.”

Greene was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Robert N. McDonald, Shirley M. Watts and Joseph M. Getty.

In dissent, Judge Sally D. Adkins said police did not know who threw the bottle until Sizer’s running away gave them a mere “hunch,” which provides no constitutional justification for officers giving chase.

“(T)here is no reason to suspect Mr. Sizer was littering without placing unwarranted weight on his flight,” wrote Adkins, joined in dissent by Judge Michele D. Hotten. “The officers never testified that they believed there was a connection between Mr. Sizer’s flight and the littering or the alcohol violations. Put simply, he ran, so they chased him.”

The high court, however, was unanimous in holding that the gun could be introduced into evidence as it could have been seized from Sizer based on a pre-existing warrant for his arrest that came to light within moments of his having been stopped by the police.

Bike patrol

The controversial seizure and search occurred in November 2015, when Howard County police officers were on bike patrol near the Owen Brown Village Center in Columbia after local business owners voiced concern about recent crime.

Sizer was among five-to-seven people standing near a minivan in the parking lot when one of them threw a beer bottle at the ground, according to police testimony.

The officers approached the group, saying, “Police. Stop. Don’t run.” Sizer ran, and two officers gave chase on their bikes.

As the officers caught up with Sizer, he raised his hands and acknowledged having a gun. The officers then wrestled him to the ground, found the gun and arrested him, according to court papers.

Sizer was facing a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm when Howard County Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman ruled in May 2016 the gun could not be introduced as evidence due to the unconstitutional search and seizure. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals overturned that ruling in December, prompting Sizer’s appeal.

Sizer’s appellate attorney, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Helki Philipsen, did not return a telephone message seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Jamal Sizer v. State of Maryland, No. 1 September Term 2017.

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