The Maryland Transit Administration violated the constitutional rights of light rail passengers when MTA officers put on a show of force in conducting a sweep of the train cars to ensure fares were paid, the state’s second-highest court held Thursday in overturning the gun- possession conviction of a passenger caught in the sweep.
In its reported decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the MTA’s suspicionless investigation amounted to an unconstitutional seizure of the passengers, who reasonably believed they were not free to leave the train in light of the strong police presence.
As a result, the gun MTA police found on Kennard Carter after he admitted skirting the fare was wrongfully admitted into evidence at his Baltimore trial, the intermediate court stated in its 3-0 decision that the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure.
In finding the violation, the court cited not only the conduct of individual officers but the magnitude of MTA police’s presence at about 8 p.m. on that October evening in 2017.
Several officers boarded the train at the Mount Royal station while others remained on the platform, ready to question those who had not paid their fares and check whether they had outstanding arrest warrants, according to the court’s opinion. The passengers were never told they were free to leave as the officers asked to see their train tickets, the court said.
“The Supreme Court has made clear that law enforcement officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment by merely approaching an individual in a public place or asking if he or she is willing to answer questions,” Judge Michael W. Reed wrote for the court. “Fourth Amendment guarantees are implicated, however, when an officer, by physical force or show of authority, restrains a person’s liberty so that a reasonable person would not feel free to terminate the encounter or decline the officer’s request.”
Carter told MTA corporal Latoya Russell of his failure to pay — an offense punishable by a $50 fine — and was instructed to wait on a bench on the platform, where officers collected his name, birth date and Social Security number. While officers discovered he had a possible arrest warrant, Carter rose from the bench but was stopped by MTA police, who then saw he was armed and subdued him, according to the court’s opinion.
A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge rejected Carter’s motion to keep the gun from being introduced at trial.
A jury later found Carter guilty of possession of a gun after having been convicted; wearing, carrying or transporting a gun on his person; and resisting arrest. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but five years suspended, and three years’ supervised probation.
The Court of Special Appeals, in overturning the conviction, said Carter was unconstitutionally seized by the officers on the train without the necessary suspicion of unlawful activity on his part.
“Although (Carter) was not restrained physically by the MTA officers when they entered the light rail train, corporal Russell’s show of authority, as well as the presence of multiple officers outside the train car, implied to a reasonable person that individuals were not free to leave prior to providing proof of a fare ticket,” Reed wrote.
“In conducting the fare inspection, corporal Russell moved about the car in a way that prevented anyone from exiting without first encountering her, effectively trapping all patrons inside the train car,” Reed added. “No officers ever stated that individuals were free to leave, and although that factor does not, in and of itself, determine if a seizure occurred, it is a factor that we consider within the totality of the circumstances.”
The state argued that any constitutional violation with regard to Carter was trumped by the discovery of the outstanding arrest warrant against him, a superseding-cause argument based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Utah v. Strieff.
But the appellate court noted that, but for Carter’s unconstitutional seizure, the warrant would not have been discovered.
“Simply put, MTA officers cannot systematically use fare inspections as a means of determining if light-rail passengers have outstanding warrants,” Reed wrote. “To allow such misconduct would be a grave injustice and hinder the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment.”
The court added that the Fourth Amendment violation could have been avoided had a conductor been sent to collect tickets and contact the police when a passenger could not provide one, thus giving the officers reasonable suspicion that a particular passenger had broken the law.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office said in a statement Thursday that it was reviewing the intermediate court’s decision.
Carter’s appellate attorney, Renee M. Hutchins, said she was “delighted” by the ruling.
“I am particularly encouraged by the fact that the court recognized the flagrancy of the police misconduct made the Strieff attenuation doctrine inapplicable,” added Hutchins, dean of the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law.
The MTA referred all inquiries to the Attorney General’s Office.
Reed was joined in the opinion by Judges Andrea M. Leahy and Dan Friedman.
The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Kennard Carter v. State of Maryland, No. 478, September Term 2018.