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CSA: Tinted car windows give police ‘reasonable suspicion’

Court of Special Appeals upholds stop, search

A Maryland appeals court has issued a warning to out-of-state motorists who like their car windows heavily tinted.

Though those approachingly opaque windows may be legal where the vehicle is registered, Maryland police have “reasonable suspicion” to pull the motorists over, as state law prohibits window tinting that obscures more than 35 percent of light for cars registered in Maryland.

Ronald Baez found this out the hard way last week as Maryland’s second-highest court upheld his drug conviction after rejecting his counsel’s argument that police lacked the legal and constitutional foundation to stop his Virginia-registered car with tinted windows. Officers found his illegal stash during their post-stop search of the vehicle.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said police did not violate Baez’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by pulling over the vehicle on suspicion of violating Maryland law, though the car was in fact registered outside of Maryland.

“The officer had a right to make an investigatory stop based on the tinted windows of appellant’s vehicle,” Judge Irma S. Raker wrote for the court.

“The purpose of a stop based upon reasonable suspicion is to confirm or to dispel that suspicion by asking for an explanation of the suspicious behavior,” added Raker, a retired judge sitting by special assignment. “A police officer, suspecting a tint widow violation, may lawfully stop a vehicle to investigate further and ask to see the vehicle registration to determine origin of registration. That the vehicle may be registered in a foreign jurisdiction does not vitiate the lawfulness of the stop.”

Brendan M. Callahan, Baez’s appellate attorney, said Wednesday that he and his client are “reviewing all available options” and a request for Court of Appeals review is “a definite possibility.”

“The statute makes it clear that the window-tint limitation only applies to vehicles that are required to be registered in Maryland,” added Callahan, of The Callahan Law Group LLC in Upper Marlboro. “It’s clear that the officer saw the Virginia (license) plates prior to initiating the stop.”

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general’s office, declined to comment Wednesday on the court’s decision.

Police pulled over Baez in his black Dodge Charger in Coral Hills at about 11 p.m on May 29, 2016, on suspicion of violating Maryland’s prohibition on tinted windows, according to the court’s opinion.

The officers smelled marijuana emanating from the car and asked if the drug was in the vehicle. When Baez said yes, the officers searched the car and found 747 grams of marijuana inside, the opinion stated.

Baez was convicted in Prince George’s County Circuit Court on an agreed-upon statement of facts and was sentenced to a year in jail — with all but one day suspended and credit for time served — and 18 months of unsupervised probation. He also retained the right to challenge the constitutionality of the traffic stop and thus his conviction.

Judges Deborah S. Eyler and Melanie Shaw Geter joined Raker’s opinion upholding the stop.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Ronald Baez v. State of Maryland, No. 351 September Term 2017.

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