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Court upholds constitutionality of Baltimore seat-belt check

Clifton Johnson would not be in prison for illegal gun possession if he had worn his seat belt or if the traffic light at a Baltimore intersection had been green.

During afternoon rush hour three years ago, Johnson was caught beltless at a red light amid the Baltimore police’s coordinated effort to enforce the state’s mandatory seat-belt law where West Pratt and South Payson streets meet.

While being cited for the safety violation, Johnson failed to produce a driver’s license or vehicle registration. Officers also discovered an open warrant for Johnson’s arrest and no record of his vehicle’s license plate, resulting in the police arresting him and impounding the automobile.

While examining the vehicle, the officers found a gun under the driver’s seat. Johnson was convicted in Baltimore City Circuit Court of illegal possession of a regulated firearm and related offenses and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

On Monday, Maryland’s second-highest court rejected Johnson’s argument that city police violated his constitutional Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures by setting up a checkpoint and examining all drivers stopped at a red light without probable cause to suspect them of unlawful activity.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the police were neither stopping the vehicles – the red light was – nor intrusively looking into them. The officers also did not disrupt the traffic flow, as they did not detain motorists once the light turned green, the court held.

“The officers conducting the traffic initiative did not prevent motorists from proceeding down Pratt Street when they could lawfully do so,” Judge Christopher B. Kehoe wrote for the court.

“Rather, motorists were halted by virtue of a red traffic signal, and only then did police officers enter the crosswalk to observe visible traffic infractions,” Kehoe added. “It was only upon spotting such an infraction that a police officer would effectuate a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The traffic initiative caused minimal intrusion into the lives of motorists.”

About seven Baltimore police officers conducted what the department called its “traffic initiative” on May 7, 2016.

Officer Zachary Serio testified that when the light turned red he would walk in front of or beside stopped vehicles to see if their occupants were wearing seat belts. When the light turned green, Serio said, he would suspend his investigation and permit the vehicles to go even if he had spotted a violation moments earlier.

Drivers whose vehicles’ occupants were not wearing seat belts were told to pull off onto Payson Street, where another officer would write the citation, Serio testified.

Johnson was one such driver.

Officer Karl Dauphin checked the car’s license plate number, for which the Motor Vehicle Administration had no record, according to the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion.

Having no driver’s license or registration, Johnson told Dauphin his name and date of birth, from which the officer discovered the open warrant. Police ordered  Johnson out of the car and placed him under arrest before impounding his vehicle.

Johnson was also cited for failing to wear a seat belt.

“In this case, Johnson, halted at the traffic light, was driving without a seat belt in clear violation of state traffic laws,” Kehoe wrote in upholding Johnson’s conviction.

“Officer Serio witnessed this violation while walking alongside Johnson’s vehicle,” Kehoe added. “This gave the officer sufficient justification to instruct Johnson to pull onto Payson Street so that another officer could issue a citation. Johnson’s subsequent inability to provide accurate information regarding his vehicle gave the officers reason to impound the car and conduct the inventory search that, consequently, led to the discovery of the loaded handgun under the driver’s seat.”

Kehoe was joined by Judges Timothy E. Meredith and Stuart R. Berger.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Clifton Johnson v. State of Maryland, No. 1286, September Term 2017.

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