Drugs in the car, and no one owns up. Is everyone liable?

When the US Supreme Court announces its decision in a case called Maryland v. Pringle sometime next year, it may become required reading for every American parent with a teenage child.

That's because the court will decide whether police may arrest all passengers riding in a car in which hidden contraband is discovered.

It doesn't matter that your son or daughter does not use narcotics or was unaware narcotics were in the car. The question being presented Monday in oral argument to the nation's highest court is whether people's mere presence in a car where someone has concealed drugs is enough to arrest everyone for possession of those drugs.

"This case has broad implications, especially for those of us with teenaged children," says Sherrie Glasser, an assistant public defender in Baltimore. "My sons frequently get rides home from friends on weekends."

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures in part by requiring that police develop individualized suspicion of illegal conduct prior to arresting someone.

At issue in Maryland v. Pringle is whether the same level of suspicion can be applied equally to everyone in a car containing contraband to justify multiple arrests.

Law-enforcement officials from 21 states and the Justice Department downplay the possibility that unknowing passengers may be swept up in drug busts.

"Individuals involved in drug trafficking are unlikely to carry out their crimes in the immediate company of innocent bystanders, especially within the close confines of an automobile," says US Solicitor General Theodore Olson in a friend-of-the-court brief. "Discovery of contraband in an automobile casts suspicion on all the vehicle's passengers in the crime."

Rather than an innocent teen, the case before the high court involves a far less sympathetic defendant - an admitted crack- cocaine dealer.

The case stems from an August 1999 traffic stop in which a Baltimore County police officer pulls over a car for speeding at 3:16 a.m. The officer discovers $763 in cash and five baggies of crack cocaine concealed inside the vehicle.

Armed with the discovered contraband, the officer threatens to arrest all three occupants of the car unless someone admits to ownership of the drugs and money. After each refuses to confess, the officer takes all three into custody.

Two hours after they arrive at the police station, the front-seat passenger, Joseph Pringle, admits that the drugs and money are his. The police officer releases the driver and the other passenger without charge.

Mr. Pringle was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The conviction was upheld on appeal. But the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals of Maryland, reversed the conviction and set Pringle free in a 4-to-3 decision.

The majority ruled that Pringle's arrest was illegal because the arresting officer did not have enough "probable cause" during the roadside stop to link Pringle individually to the drugs.

The cocaine was discovered behind an armrest in the back seat. The wad of cash was found in the glove compartment. At the time of the traffic stop, Pringle was seated in the front passenger seat, and the court reasoned that Pringle was too far away from the concealed drugs in the back seat to support a rational inference by the police officer that the drugs belonged to him.

Without that rational inference at the time of the roadside stop, the Maryland court ruled, the police officer was not justified in arresting Pringle on charges of possession of cocaine.

In their appeal to the US Supreme Court, Maryland law- enforcement officials argue that the police officer had probable cause to arrest all three individuals in the car, not just Pringle.

"It was three o'clock in the morning, a time when few persons are carpooling to work; an inference could be drawn that all three were engaged in a common illicit enterprise," says Gary Bair, Maryland's solicitor general, in his brief to the court.

Mr. Bair says the Maryland court applied too high a standard of evidence to justify an arrest: "This is only probable cause to arrest. This is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial."

Pringle's lawyer, Ms. Glasser, says the issue is whether police had enough individualized suspicion that the drugs were Pringle's. "What is unique about this case is all you have is mere presence of the passenger," she says. "There is no movement [by passengers to conceal items], no odor of controlled substances."

She adds, "Usually the police do notice something else, even extreme nervousness."

Glasser says that once the police officer found the drugs, he should have done more to build a foundation of probable cause than simply announce that all three would be arrested unless someone confessed. She says he could have closely questioned the driver and passengers about their activities that night. Inconsistencies in answers might have yielded evidence supporting an arrest.

Bair disagrees. "When you have drugs in the back seat of a car, it is an area easily accessible to anyone in the car," he says.

If the Maryland court decision is upheld, Bair says, it will be a windfall to passengers but unfair to drivers, who by virtue of their control over the vehicle may always be arrested when contraband is discovered in the car, even when it belongs to a passenger.

"That's the problem with the Maryland decision. It leaves the police in a very poor posture," Bair says. "Either they can arrest nobody, which doesn't make a lot of sense, or they can only arrest the driver, which doesn't make much sense, either."

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