Harford County Criminal Indictment Dismissed Following Suppression of State’s Evidence in Pretextual Traffic Stop Case

This week, the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed all criminal charges against our client after the entirety of their evidence—incriminating statements coupled with the recovery of more than twelve pounds of cannabis and a loaded firearm—was suppressed by Circuit Court Judge Richard S. Bernhardt, following a three-hour suppression hearing held earlier this year.


In February 2023, our client was driving a rental car with California license plates and tinted windows when he was pulled over on I-95 for allegedly committing two traffic violations: (i) speeding and (ii) driving through a “gore area” of the Maryland House rest stop (the striped triangular area between the highway and the exit ramp). Upon initiating the traffic stop, the officer ordered our client to exit his vehicle and sit in the officer’s patrol vehicle, while the officer purportedly completed the traffic enforcement paperwork.

After isolating and detaining our client in the patrol vehicle, the officer delayed the traffic stop for several minutes, asking more than a dozen questions unrelated to completing the traffic stop paperwork and without ever advising our client of any Miranda warnings. During the interrogation, our client imprudently revealed that he was a cannabis farmer from California and that he possessed marijuana. Shortly thereafter, the officer asked for permission to search the vehicle, which our client refused.


Nevertheless, the officer declared that he was going to search the vehicle anyways because he allegedly smelled the odor of marijuana emanating from our client’s vehicle when he first approached the car; a claim that was only made after our client made inculpatory statements. Our client later informed the officer—after the initiation of the vehicle search and further un-Mirandized questioning—that he had a concealed carry permit and that there was a registered firearm in a backpack in the vehicle. Ultimately, our client was placed under arrest and charged with drug and gun crimes, exposing him to the possibility of serving more than three decades in prison, including a mandatory minimum sentence for the gun charges. Of course, he later received warnings for the traffic infractions.

After thoroughly reviewing more than four hours of dash camera videos and analyzing hundreds of pages of police paperwork, we uncovered a plethora of inconsistencies in the officer’s narrative, leading us to file a detailed Motion to Suppress Evidence.


First, we argued that the initial traffic stop was without justification. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. A traffic stop “is a seizure which implicates the Fourth Amendment.” Rowe v. State, 363 Md. 424, 432 (2016). “Where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, a traffic stop and the resultant temporary detention may be reasonable.” Id. at 433. A traffic stop is also permitted “where the officer has a reasonable belief that criminal activity is afoot.” Id.


But in this case, there was no evidence—other than the officer’s word—that our client actually committed any traffic violations, suggesting that the initial stop was purely pretextual.


Second, the evidence was clear that the questioning of our client in the patrol vehicle constituted a “custodial interrogation.” An individual in custody must be informed of certain rights prior to interrogation, so that they are not compelled to make incriminating statements in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Custody, for Miranda purposes, is defined as whether “a reasonable person would have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.” Brown v. State, 452 Md. 196, 210 (2017). The custody determination is based on the totality of the circumstances, including when and where the interrogation occurred, the length of interrogation, how many police were present, the actions of the defendant and any officers, the presence of actual physical restraint or things equivalent to actual restraint, how the defendant got to the place of questioning and if it was the product of police request. Id. at 211. Interrogation, for purposes of Miranda, encompasses both express questioning and the functional equivalent of questioning, which includes “any words or actions on the part of the police (other than those normally attendant to arrest and custody) that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.” Prioleau v. State, 179 Md. App. 19, 27 (2008). In this case, the officer’s failure to advise our client of his Miranda warnings prior to questioning required suppression not only of his statements but the physical evidence as well—the proverbial “fruit of the poisonous tree.”


Third, we argued that the discovery of the evidence was the result of an illegal “second stop.” In Maryland, a legitimate traffic stop is of reasonable duration when it lasts no longer than is reasonably necessary to effectuate the purposes of the stop. See McKoy v. State, 127 Md. App. 89, 101 (1999). Once an officer concludes the purpose of the stop, continued detention of the motorist amounts to a “second stop,” and is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless (1) the driver consents to the continuing intrusion or (2) the officer has, at a minimum, a reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. Wilkes v. State, 364 Md. 554, 573 (2001).


If neither of these conditions is present, the stop must end. See State v. Ofori, 170 Md. App. 211, 235 (2006). In this case, the officer’s questioning had nothing to do with the traffic stop but instead was exclusively designed to delay and reveal independent criminal activity.


Finally, we maintained that absent the un-Mirandized statements, the officer lacked probable cause to search the vehicle. Generally, in Maryland, a police officer must obtain a warrant to search an individual or a vehicle. See Robinson v. State, 451 Md. 94, 108 (2017). However, under the automobile exception, a warrantless search is reasonable “if, at the time of the search, the police have developed probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or the evidence of a crime.” Pacheco v. State, 465 Md. 311, 321 (2019). In this context, “probable cause” means “a reasonable ground for belief of guilt.” Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003). At the time of our client’s traffic stop, the odor of marijuana emanating from a vehicle—if true—provided sufficient probable cause for police officers to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. Robinson, 451 Md. at 99. (The law changed in July 2023. The odor of marijuana alone, is no longer sufficient probable cause to conduct a warrantless search.) In this case, our contention was that the officer did not actually detect the odor of marijuana during the traffic stop and, alternatively, if he did, it only happened after the officer reached into the vehicle and broke the threshold of the vehicle’s window. This was an important point because, in Maryland, a police officer conducts a Fourth Amendment search that requires a warrant or other justification when he or she inserts their head into a vehicle which is a “constitutionally protected area.” Grant v. State, 449 Md. 1, 19 (2016). In this case, the officer could be seen on video sticking his head into the vehicle when he requested the driver’s license and registration from our client.


In March 2024, the Court held a suppression hearing with respect to the evidence seized during this traffic stop. The officer—a seasoned veteran of the MDTA—testified confidently during his brief direct examination. However, over the course of more than two hours of cross-examination, we skillfully dismantled the officer’s narrative and revealed a number of material factual inconsistencies between the officer’s testimony, his statement of probable cause, and the dash camera footage.

During his ruling, Judge Bernhardt characterized the entirety of this traffic stop as “disturbing.” The Judge found the officer’s testimony to be unreliable, concluding that our client did not violate any traffic laws, that the initial traffic stop was purely pretextual, that there were insufficient facts to confirm whether the officer actually smelled an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle, that the questioning of our client in the patrol vehicle was a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings prior to its start, and that the questioning in the patrol vehicle constituted an illegal second stop. As a result, all our client’s statements and all the physical evidence seized from the vehicle were suppressed.


Silverman Thompson routinely handles complex criminal matters such as this, requiring meticulous preparation, strategic arguments, and an unwavering commitment to defending our client’s rights. To discuss this case or how we may be able to help you, please contact the criminal defense lawyers involved: Patrick Seidel or Andrew Harvey at 410-885-2225.

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