11/03/2003

Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Car-Search Case

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 search.

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 being arrested.

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 probable cause.

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 each case.

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.

It was not known when the justices will rule on the case.

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