ARREST; CRIME; CRIMINALS; DRUGS; MOTOR VEHICLES; SUPREME COURT DECISIONS;
CRIME AND CRIMINALS;
December 22, 2003
PROBABLE CAUSE TO ARREST-DRUGS IN MOTOR VEHICLES
By: Kevin E. McCarthy, Principal Analyst
You asked for a summary Maryland v. Pringle, 123 S. C. 1571 (2003), and a discussion of related Connecticut case law on the authority of the police to arrest occupants of a vehicle that contains illegal drugs.
Pringle was the front seat passenger of a car in which cocaine was found in a compartment in the back seat and a roll of money was found in the glove compartment after the car’s owner consented to a search following a traffic stop. None of the three occupants acknowledged owning the drugs, and officer arrested all three. Pringle subsequently provided oral and written confessions that the drugs belonged to him.
At trial, Pringle argued that his arrest was unlawful because it was not supported by probable cause and that his confession should be suppressed as the unlawful fruit of an illegal arrest. The judge found that the officer had probable cause to make the arrest. Pringle was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison without the possibility of parole. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed his conviction.
The state supreme court overturned this decision on appeal on a 4-3 vote. It held that the police did not have probable cause to arrest Pringle because there was insufficient evidence to show that he had knowledge of the drugs and “dominion or control” over them. It argued that, under the state’s reasoning, if contraband were found in a 12-passenger van or even a place such as movie theater, the police would be permitted to place everyone there under arrest until someone confessed to possessing the contraband, which would be constitutionally acceptable. The dissent argued that the majority had erroneously blended the probable cause standard for an arrest and the sufficiency of evidence standard for a conviction. It also argued that the two cases cited by the majority that specifically dealt with probable cause for an arrest were factually distinguishable from the present case.
The U. S. Supreme Court reversed the state Supreme Court decision. It unanimously held that the officer had probable cause to arrest Pringle, and thus the arrest did not contravene the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
We were unable to find any Connecticut cases that directly parallel Pringle. The Supreme Court has held that the probable cause standard for arrests is greater than mere suspicion but less than that needed to sustain a conviction. In order to convict a person of drug possession, the state must establish that the defendant (1) knew the character of the substance, (2) knew of its presence, and (3) exercised dominion and control over it. In the case of drugs found in premises that are occupied by more than one person, joint ownership and control cannot be assumed.
PRINGLE V. MARYLAND
The Baltimore County Police Department stopped a car containing Joseph Jermaine Pringle and two other men at 3: 16 a. m. on August 7, 1999. The car’s owner was driving, Pringle was in the front passenger seat, and a third man was in the back seat. The officer asked the driver for his license and registration. When he opened the glove compartment, the officer noticed a roll of rolled money there. The officer then went back to his patrol car, where he checked the state computer system for outstanding violations. The check did not reveal any violations and the officer returned to the car, had the driver exit it, and gave him an oral warning.
At this time, a second patrol car arrived and the first officer asked the driver whether he had any drugs or weapons in the car. The driver said that he did not. The officer then asked for and received the driver’s permission to search the car. During the search the officer seized five plastic baggies containing suspected cocaine from inside an armrest in the back seat. He also seized $ 763 from the glove compartment. The officer questioned the three men about the ownership of the drugs and money and told them that if no one acknowledged owning them, he was going to arrest them all. No one offered information regarding their ownership, and the officer placed the three men under arrest and transported them to the police station.
Approximately an hour later, the officer met with Pringle and obtained a waiver of his Miranda rights. The officer then obtained an oral and written confession in which Pringle acknowledged that the cocaine belonged to him. He maintained that the other two men did not of the drugs and the police released them. Pringle was arrested for possession of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
Lower Court Decisions
At trial, Pringle’s attorney argued that his arrest was unlawful because it was not supported by probable cause and that his confession should be suppressed as the unlawful fruit of an illegal arrest. The judge found that the officer had probable cause to make the arrest. Pringle was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison without the possibility of parole. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed his conviction.
Supreme Court Decision
On March 6, 2002 the Court of Appeals (the state supreme court) granted certiorari. Pringle presented one question, i. e. , whether the police had probable cause to arrest him given the facts of the case.
Majority Opinion. The court began its discussion with a review of probable cause case law. Under Maryland law, a police officer can arrest a person without a warrant if he has probable cause to believe that felony has been or is being committed by the alleged offender in the officer’s presence. The court had previously held that a finding of probable cause requires less evidence than is necessary to sustain a
conviction, but more than would merely arouse suspicion. Woods v. State, 315 591, 556 A. 2d 236, 246 (1989). In order for the arrest to be valid, the officer must have had probable cause at the time of the arrest to believe that the petitioner was in possession of cocaine. Possession, under state statute, is the exercise of actual or constructive dominion or control over a thing.
The court next reviewed several sufficiency of evidence cases that discussed possession, which the court believed were instructive with respect to definition of drug possession. In one such case, it had held that for the state to establish possession it must provide evidence that “directly shows or supports a rational inference that the accused did in fact exercise some dominion or control over the prohibited narcotic in the sense contemplated by the statute…” Garrison v. State, 272 Md. 123, 142, 321 A. 2d 767, 777 (1974). In State v. Leach, 296 Md. 591, 463 A. 2d 872 (1983), the court had held that even though the petitioner had ready access to the apartment occupied by his brother in which drugs were found, the finding that the brother was the occupant of the apartment precluded inferring that the petitioner had joint dominion and control with the brother over the entire apartment and over everything contained anywhere in it. It also held that a scale and magnifier found in plain sight in a different room than the drugs did not provide legally sufficient evidence to convict the petitioner, since they were intrinsically innocuous and become significant only by association with drugs or cutting agents.
In Dawkins v. State, 313 Md. 638, 547 A. 2d 1041 (1988), the court overturned a decision in which the trial court had declined the defense’s motion to instruct the jury that knowledge is an element of possession. Subsequently, in White v. State, 363 Md. 150, 767 A. 2d 855 (2001), it overturned a possession conviction, holding a rational fact finder could not infer that the defendant had dominion and control over the cocaine found in a sealed box in the trunk of a vehicle in which he apparently had limited access and no possessory interest. In Taylor v. State, 346 Md. 452, 697 A. 2d 462 (1997), the court overturned a possession conviction of one occupant of a motel room when marijuana was found in a bag of another occupant. It found that the record was clear that Taylor was not in exclusive possession of the room and that the drugs were secreted in a hidden place not shown to be in his control. Moreover, the evidence did not establish that Taylor had knowledge of the presence of the marijuana. The court held that without knowledge of the presence of marijuana in the room, it is not possible for Taylor to have exercised dominion or control over it.
The court held that even though these cases dealt with sufficiency of the evidence, they establish the law for determining some possession issues, even at the probable cause stage. It next discussed the elements of possession in probable cause cases. In Livingston v. State, 317 Md. 408, 564 A 2d 414 (1989), the court held that when the police found two marijuana seeds in the front seat of a car, this did not provide them with probable cause to arrest and search the back seat occupant of the car, who was not its owner. In Collins v. State, 322 Md. 675, 589 A. 2d 479 (1991), the court overturned a possession conviction of a man who was standing five feet from a car in which drugs were found. It had found that there was no testimony suggesting that Collins had arrived in the car or even been in the it, or that he know that the drugs were in the back seat of the car. Following United States v. Di Re, 332 U. S. 581 (1948), the court held that the mere presence of drugs in a closed container in a car was legally insufficient to support the requisite probable cause to arrest Collins as he stood outside of it.
In the present case, the court applied the facts and circumstances of the case to the elements of possession requiring knowledge of the drugs and “dominion or control” over them. Relying on the above cases, particularly Livingstone, it held that the police did not have probable cause to arrest the petitioner Pringle. It argued that, under the state’s reasoning, if contraband were found in a 12-passenger van or even a place such as movie theater, the police would be permitted to place everyone there under arrest until someone confessed to possessing the contraband, which would be constitutionally acceptable.
The court also addressed the fact that a roll of money had been found in a closed glove compartment in the car in which Pringle had been riding. It found that there were insufficient facts to lead a reasonable person to believe that Pringle, at the time of his arrest, had prior knowledge of the money or that he exercised dominion or control over it. The court held that there was not probable cause to arrest Pringle at the time of the traffic stop and that under the “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, the evidence tainted by Fourth Amendment violations cannot be used against him.
Although the state had not argued that the confession was admissible as a result of attenuation, the concept would not have been applicable under the circumstances of the case. It presented a lengthy discussion of its rationale for this position.
Concurring Opinion. One justice concurred with the majority’s opinion and judgment, but wrote a separate opinion to address the issue raised in the dissent that the majority had erroneously blended the probable cause standard with the sufficiency of evidence standard. The justice stated that the majority merely looked to the court’s jurisprudence for guidance in elucidating the concept of possession and its discussion of dominion and control. He cited the dissent in appellate court’s decision, which noted that Pringle did not have easy access to the drugs. The judge noted that the money in the glove compartment, in and of itself, was innocuous and certainly less suspicious that the scales and tools discounted in Leach. Moreover, the judge noted that there had been no showing that Pringle had any connection to or knowledge of the money.
Dissent. As noted above, the dissent argued that the majority had erroneously blended the probable cause standard for an arrest and the sufficiency of evidence standard for a conviction. The dissent argued that the location of the drugs and money in the car would a reasonable officer to believe that the three men had joint constructive possession over the contraband. It noted that the majority cites no authority for its statement that the sufficiency of evidence cases discussed above “establish the law for determining some possession issues, even at the probable cause to arrest state. ”
The dissent also argued that the two cases cited by the majority that directly dealt with probable cause were factually distinguishable from the present case. It argued that just because finding two marijuana seeds in the front seat of a car is not enough to establish probable cause to arrest the back seat passenger, it does not follow that discovering several baggies of cocaine and a large amount of cash also fails to provide probable cause. Similarly, the dissent argued that the facts in Collins were markedly different than those in the present case. In this case, Pringle was in the car in which drugs and money were found, in distinction to Collins, where no evidence had been presented that he had ever been in the vehicle.
The dissent argued that the majority would force police officers to base their arrests on whether a conviction would stand, turning them into prosecutors. Following Brinegar v. United States, 338 U. S. 160 (1949), the dissent argued that probable cause is a matter of probabilities. It argues that the majority’s holding would unduly hamper law enforcement. Finally, the dissent argues that the majority’s analysis of attenuation is flawed, in light of the fact that Pringle voluntarily confessed to the crime.
U. S. Supreme Court Decision
The U. S. Supreme Court overturned the state Supreme Court’s decision on December 15, 2003. The Court stated that
It is uncontested in the present case that the officer, upon recovering the five plastic glassine baggies containing suspected cocaine, had probable cause to believe a felony had been committed. . . The sole question is whether the officer had probable cause to believe that Pringle committed that crime… The long-prevailing standard of probable cause protects “citizens from rash and unreasonable interferences with privacy and from unfounded charges of crime,” while giving “fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection. ” Brinegar v. United States, 338 U. S. 160, 176 (1949). On many occasions, we have reiterated that the probable-cause standard is a “practical, nontechnical conception” that deals with “the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act. ” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213, 231 (1983) (quoting Brinegar, supra, at 175-176).
The Court concluded, that given the facts of the case, it was an entirely reasonable inference “…that that any or all three of the occupants had knowledge of, and exercised dominion and control over, the cocaine. Thus a reasonable officer could conclude that there was probable cause to believe Pringle committed the crime of possession of cocaine, either solely or jointly. ” As a result, Pringle’s arrest did not contravene the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
RELATED CONNECTICUT LAW
We have not found any directly parallel cases with regard to probable cause for arresting a person for drug possession in cases where there are several people in a vehicle.
Generally speaking, probable cause for an arrest “…means more than mere suspicion. There must be facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge, and of which he has trustworthy information, sufficient to justify the belief that of a reasonable person that an offense has been or is being committed. ” State v. Penland, 174 Conn. 153, 155, 384 A. 2d 356, cert. denied, 436 U. S. 906 (1978). On the other hand, to establish probable cause, it is not necessary to produce a quantum of evidence necessary to convict. State v. Paoletto 181 Conn. 172 (1980), citing Draper v. U. S. , 358 U. S. 307, 311 (1959).
In the context of sufficiency of evidence to convict a person of illegal possession of a narcotic substance, the state must establish that the defendant (1) knew the character of the substance, (2) knew of its presence, and (3) exercised dominion and control over it. State. v. Alfonso, 195 Conn. 624, (1985). If the defendant is not in exclusive possession of the premises where the narcotics are found, “it may not be inferred that [the defendant] knew of the presence of the narcotics and had control over them, unless there are other incriminating statements or circumstances tending to buttress such an inference” State v. Nesmith, 220 Conn. 628, 633 (1991), citing State v. Hill, 201 Conn. 505, 514-16 (1986).