BALTIMORE (AP) -- The justices of the Supreme Court Monday closely
questioned both sides during oral arguments in a Baltimore County
case that raises the issue of whether a police officer has probable
cause to arrest all the occupants of a car if drugs are found after a
The state attorney general appealed to the nation's highest court
after the Maryland Court of Appeals, in a split decision last year,
overturned Joseph Jermaine Pringle's April 2000 conviction for
possession and possession with intent to distribute cocaine, The
(Baltimore) Daily Record reported.
Pringle was the front-seat passenger in a car with two others when
all three were arrested following a police search of the vehicle
which uncovered $763 in cash hidden in the glove compartment and five
bags of cocaine stuck underneath the rear seat armrest.
According to court records, Pringle and the other two men in the car
initially denied knowing anything about the drugs or money after
Pringle eventually admitted in a written confession that the cocaine
and the money were his, and that the other two men had no knowledge
of them. Partlow and Smith were then released without charge.
Pringle tried unsuccessfully to suppress the evidence found in the
car and his confession. A Baltimore County jury convicted him of
possession and possession to distribute cocaine.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Maryland's top court held that the officer did not have probable
cause to arrest Pringle - a conclusion Solicitor General Gary E. Bair
took issue with on Monday. He said that a decision against Pringle
did not necessarily have to lead to a broader interpretation of
Instead, evaluations of whether there is probable cause should be
based on the individual circumstances of each case, he argued.
Justice David H. Souter, who implied in a question to Pringle's
lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Nancy S. Forster, that the
circumstances surrounding the police stop, which took place at early
on Aug. 7, 1999 in Reisterstown, supported the state's case.
"Here the officer had evidence of all three people in a relatively
small car with quantities of drugs and an amount of money to suggest
that drug dealing was going on," he said. "There's an inference that
someone in the car was dealing drugs."
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor took a different
approach, questioning Bair over the implications of the kind of
"fluid" interpretation of probable cause the state, backed by the
U.S. Solicitor General's Office, seemed to be asking for.
O'Connor asked Bair what would happen if a mother were driving her
child to school during the day, and drugs belonging to someone else
were found in the car following a search.
"That would be different," replied Bair, again noting that the
"totality of the circumstances" should be the deciding element for
O'Connor also pressed Sri Srinivasan, an assistant to the U.S.
Solicitor General, who spoke in support of the state.
"Your brief reads to me to suggest that you are proposing a broad
rule that probable cause exists whenever drugs are found in the
passenger part of a car," O'Connor said.
Srinivasan denied that claim.
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It was not known when the justices will rule on the case.