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Maryland Court of Appeals issues decision on Probable

Cause and Constructive Possession

 

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 chilling man.”

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 license. 

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 the contraband. 

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 consultation. 

The information contained on this page does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to form any attorney-client relationship. 

The Law Offices of Baldwin, Briscoe & Steinmetz, P.C. also offers these services:

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Lexington Park, MD 20653

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With an office conveniently located in Lexington Park, The Law Offices of Baldwin, Briscoe & Stienmetz, P.C. serves clients in the counties and cities of Lexington Park, Leonardtown, Hollywood, Mechanicsville, Loveville, Helen, Breton Bay, Chaptico, Charlotte Hall, Golden Beach, Avenue, La Plata, Waldorf, Newburg, Port Tobacco, Port Charles, Solomons Island, Prince Frederick, Chesapeake Shores, Hughesville, Benedict, Nanjemoy, Lusby, Port Republic, St. Mary's County, Charles County, Calvert County, Prince George's County, Southern Maryland.


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