Maryland Court of Appeals issues decision on Probable
In an opinion filed on November 28, 2018, the Maryland
Court of Appeals dealt with two important issues that arise frequently in
criminal cases. The first issue is whether
an individual, who is sitting in a parked car, is driving an automobile, and
the rights that flow from that determination.
The second issue deals with a term called constructive possession.
In George Spell v.
State, the defendant, who did not have a license, was sitting in the car’s
driver’s seat, with the engine running. The
defendant had filed a motion to suppress evidence arising out of a traffic stop
which was denied by the trial court. Officers
who spotted Spell were familiar with him and knew, from previous
investigations, that he did not have a driver’s license. When officers approached the defendant and
advised him that it was illegal for him to drive without a license, he denied
operating the vehicle. He said he was “just
Officers asked and the defendant voluntarily consented to
being searched. Vials of cocaine with
yellow and white tops were found on his person.
The defendant also had a key on his key ring that resembled one that he
had been found with in a previous investigation. A confidential information advised the police
that the defendant was storing drugs and a gun in a building across the street
from where he was arrested.
Officers entered the buildings and used the key found on
the defendant to open two utility rooms where they found drugs and a
handgun. Defendant did not live in the building
but had been given access to the laundry room by a maintenance man. Defendant challenged the validity of the
search. The court said that since he
didn’t live there, he couldn’t challenge the search generally, but did permit
him to challenge the search of the laundry room.
Because he was in the car, sitting in the driver’s seat
without a license, the court said that the officers could have arrested
him. Spell argued, however, that he wasn’t
arrested for operating without a license, but rather engaged in activities
unrelated to the enforcement of the traffic code to determine whether there was
sufficient indicia of some other illegal activity. The trial court ruled that
there was probable cause to arrest the defendant for operating without a
The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge that the
police had probable cause to believe that the defendant was driving without a
license. Based on previous caselaw, the
court concluded that because the defendant was sitting in the driver’s seat,
within the engine running, he was driving.
It was irrelevant that the vehicle was not moving. The defendant also challenged whether the
search was incident to arrest, because defendant had already been handcuffed
and removed from the vehicle prior to the search. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals
rejected this argument.
The more interesting issue, in my opinion, is the issue
of constructive possession. Constructive
possession means that a person exercised dominion or control over a substance,
or other contraband, even though he or she wasn’t holding it or in its immediate
vicinity. To prove dominion or control,
the state must show the defendant exercised a restraining or direct influence over
Previous decisions set out four factors that the court
will look at in addressing constructive possession: (1) the defendant’s proximity
to the drugs; (2) whether the drugs were in plain view and/or accessible to the
defendant; (3) whether there was indicia of mutual use and enjoyment of the
drugs; and (4) whether the defendant has an ownership or possessory interest in
the location where the drugs are found.
Here, the court found that the defendant didn’t have any
ownership or possessory interest in the utility room. The state argued, and the defendant conceded
that he did have access to the utility room.
The court also determined that the possession of the key supported that
conclusion. The court determined based
on the location of the room and the fact that yellow topped vials of cocaine found
in the room, matching yellow topped vials found on defendant’s person, that the
defendant did have access to the room.
The court determined that the defendant’s proximity to the drugs was
sufficient. It noted that often drug
dealers will keep narcotics and firearms in a stash location, to avoid being
charged with them.
The court ultimately upheld the conviction for possession,
finding that although the drugs weren’t found on the defendant, he was across
the street from where they were found, that he had a key to the room and that
he had in his immediate possession yellow-topped vials similar to those in
which the drugs were found. The court
said that the jury could reasonably infer that the yellow topped vials on his
person came from the utility room and that he exercised dominion and control
over the contraband in the utility room.
If you are charged with any criminal offense, including
possession of a controlled dangerous substance, or a traffic offense like driving without a license, it is important that you speak
to an attorney as soon as possible. Only
an experienced criminal defense attorney can properly evaluate your case and identify
all potential defenses that may be available to you. The experienced attorneys at Baldwin, Briscoe
& Steinmetz, P.C. have years of experience handling criminal cases. There is never a fee for a criminal
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