Court import: Be careful whom you get in a car with

The Supreme Court finds that all occupants of a car can be arrested if officers find unclaimed contraband.

Parents of teenagers now have an additional incentive to really get to know their children's friends and acquaintances.

It is called Maryland v. Pringle.

That's the title of a US Supreme Court decision announced this week that, for the first time, authorizes a police officer who discovers contraband in a car to arrest every occupant of the car when no one admits to ownership of the illicit item.

What this means for parents is that even if their child does not use drugs, he or she could be arrested for possession of narcotics simply for being present in a car where drugs are found. That's the new rule established in a 9-to-0 decision issued on Monday by the Supreme Court.

"As a parent of an up-and-coming teenager, it makes me nervous," says Lisa Kemler, a defense lawyer in Alexandria, Va., who helped prepare a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "Hopefully, you know their friends well enough that you have a level of trust and confidence, but stuff happens and people end up being at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Although the case may resonate with parents of teens, its implications are much broader. It potentially applies to anyone in a car where contraband is discovered.

The eight-page ruling written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist relates to an August 1999 traffic stop by a Baltimore County police officer. After discovering crack cocaine and a wad of $763 in cash, the police officer arrested all three occupants of the car when none confessed to ownership of the money and drugs. Later at the police station, Joseph Pringle admitted that the cocaine and cash were his. The two other men were released.

Pringle's proceedings

At trial, Mr. Pringle was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. But on appeal, his conviction was thrown out by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals because the court ruled that the police officer did not have enough "probable cause" to believe the drugs were Pringle's. The court said the officer needed more evidence to provide enough individualized suspicion to point to Pringle.

In reversing that ruling, the US Supreme Court said the Baltimore County police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment bar against unreasonable searches and seizures. The justices said that given the circumstances surrounding the 3:16 a.m. traffic stop and that the occupants of the car seemed to know one another, the officer had the necessary legal authority to make arrests.

"We think it an entirely reasonable inference from these facts that any or all three of the occupants had knowledge of, and exercised dominion and control over, the cocaine," Mr. Rehnquist writes. "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."

Rather than requiring a showing of individualized suspicion, the justices said the circumstances suggested that all three men in the car might be involved in criminal activity. "We think it was reasonable for the officer to infer a common enterprise among the three men," Rehnquist writes.

Court clarification

Prior to Monday's ruling, it was unclear whether police officers could arrest everyone in the car without violating Fourth Amendment prohibitions. Now, what is clear is that the determination is to be left to the discretion of officers on the scene of the traffic stop.

The unanimous decision is an important victory for law-enforcement officials because it gives greater flexibility to police officers who often must rely on their instincts during potentially dangerous roadside stops.

Maryland Solicitor General Gary Bair, who argued and won the case for the state, says granting police greater discretion doesn't automatically mean innocent passengers will go to jail. He notes that the two other occupants of the car in the Pringle case were released once he confessed to sole ownership of the drugs and money.

But what happens when there is no confession? Asked what advice he would give to teens, Mr. Bair says: "Be very careful who you get in a car with, because if they are stopped for something like this, you very well may get swept up in it."

Ohio and 20 other states filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Maryland's position. "Hopefully, this new police power will not create some broad net that everybody who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time goes to jail until they can prove their innocence," says Mark Gribben, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

Instead, he says, the decision will help police officers act with more confidence during traffic stops that their roadside decisions won't be second-guessed and overturned by judges later.

Steven Silverman is executive director of a civil liberties group called the Flex Your Rights Foundation, based in Washington. He says one lesson of the Pringle case is that the driver of the car should have never consented to a police search of his vehicle. "Had the defendant known of his Fourth Amendment right to refuse police searches, the evidence would not have been discovered, and the defendant and his companions would not have been arrested," Mr. Silverman says.

"The overwhelming majority of people," he says, "don't know they have the right to refuse a search of their car."

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