One area of criminal law that has been the subject of many appellate opinions is the notion of “stop and frisk,” as originally adopted in the Supreme Court’s opinion in 1968 in Terry v. Ohio. Although the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures protects persons from a warrantless arrest without probable cause, where the police have a reasonable suspicion that a person may be armed and dangerous that is enough to stop them and frisk or search their person for a weapon. Whether this allows the police to actually handcuff such a person was explored by a recent case from Maryland’s highest court called Ira Chase v. State.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion indicates that two officers were conducting surveillance in the parking lot of a hotel which was known for drug trafficking, when they saw a vehicle pull up near Chase’s car, and the occupant get into Chase’s vehicle. Recognizing this as a typical scenario for a drug sale, the officers approached Chase’s car, and observed he and his companion appeared to reach under the seat of the vehicle. They told Chase to exit the vehicle, and he became belligerent, so they handcuffed him while they briefly searched him and the car for weapons and called for a K-9 unit which arrived quickly. When the dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs in the car, Chase was arrested. A key found on his person led to a search with a warrant of a hotel room where drugs were found, and Chase was indicted on drug offenses.
The defense counsel moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that once the police handcuffed Chase this was no longer a “Terry stop” and they had no probable cause to search him or the car. The trial court disagreed, and he was convicted. The Court of Appeals heard the case, and reviewed the various Maryland cases that have explored the limits of stop and frisk by the police.
The Court noted that the purpose of the doctrine was to balance the safety of police and public where there was a reasonable suspicion that a suspect was armed, with an individual’s right against intrusion on his or her person. In this case, the Court agreed that the police had a reasonable basis due to the furtive movements of the vehicle occupants to ask them to exit the vehicle, and handcuffing Chase was a reasonable precaution to prevent him reaching into the car for a gun until they searched him and the car for a weapon. The brief period before the dog arrived and gave them probable cause for an arrest, the Court held, fit within the parameters of stop and frisk despite the handcuffs.
This illustrates how the Courts have extended the original concept of the pat-down on the street in balancing safety with Fourth Amendment protections.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.