Case Notes

Highest Case Note from Write-On 2019: State v. Johnson, 458 Md. 519, 183 A.3d 119 (2018)


Taylor Bayat*

 The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the Court of Special Appeals, which found that the suppression court erred in denying Respondent’s motion to suppress evidence of marijuana, concluding that the police officers had probable cause to search Respondent’s trunk after marijuana was found in the waistband of the front-seat passenger during a routine traffic stop  State v. Johnson, 458 Md. 519, 183 A.3d 119 (2018).

I.  Introduction

The court in State v. Johnson considered the constitutionality of a warrantless search of Respondent’s trunk after a lawful traffic stop revealed the front-seat passenger possessed marijuana on his person.[1]  The driver of the vehicle, Ms. Johnson, did not possess marijuana on her person, but the officers determined her abnormal behavior during the traffic stop amounted to probable cause to believe illegal activity was occurring in the vehicle.[2]  The court applied the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception to justify the officers’ warrantless search of the vehicle’s trunk.[3]  In doing so, the court substantially expanded the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception.[4]

II.  Historical Development

A.  A Vehicle Search Does Not Violate the Fourth Amendment if the Officer Has Probable Cause to Believe that There Is Illegal Activity Within the Vehicle.

The United States Constitution provides citizens with numerous protections, including the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.[5]  Consequently, searches require a judicial warrant to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” requirement.[6]  However, as the Supreme Court observed in Carroll v. United States, securing a warrant to search a vehicle is impractical; thus, officers may search a vehicle without a warrant if probable cause is present.[7]

Carroll was the seminal case that introduced the automobile exception.[8]  The Supreme Court later refined this exception in United States v. Ross, holding that the scope of a warrantless search of an automobile “is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.”[9]  The Court emphasized that if probable cause justifies the search of a vehicle, it also justifies the search of every part of the vehicle that may conceal the object of the search.[10]  Thus, the Court narrowed the scope of Carroll by limiting the search to only those places in which an officer has probable cause to believe the object in question may be located.[11]

Nine years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ross, the Court in California v. Acevedo granted certiorari to determine whether a warrantless search of a container inside a vehicle is permissible when an officer lacks probable cause to search the entire vehicle.[12]  The Supreme Court reaffirmed Ross and held that the officers were limited to searching the trunk of the vehicle because they only had probable cause to search the container in the vehicle’s trunk, not the whole vehicle.[13]

While both Acevedo and Ross limited the scope of a warrantless search of a vehicle, the Supreme Court’s decision in Wyoming v. Houghton expanded the scope of the automobile exception.[14]  In Houghton, the Court reaffirmed that the limits of a warrantless search extend only to places in which the object of the search may be found.[15]  However, the Court expanded this rule by refusing to require that only the driver’s belongings in the vehicle may be searched by an officer.[16]  Thus, an officer may search any passengers’ belongings in the vehicle if the officer has probable cause to believe that the belongings contain the object of the search.[17]  The Court reaffirmed this contention in Maryland v. Pringle, where it established that a “common enterprise” may be found between all passengers of a vehicle.[18]  This common enterprise may allow an officer to search the belongings of a passenger if probable cause is present.[19]

B.  Probable Cause Is a Fluid Concept Which Does Not Conform to Strict Rules.

Although the Supreme Court appeared to set strict guidelines governing warrantless searches of automobiles, the Court also stated that probable cause is a fluid concept.[20]  The Supreme Court views warrantless searches given the totality of the circumstances, making each instance a case-by-case determination.[21]  Moreover, great deference is given to the credibility and expertise of the officers conducting the search as to whether they believed probable cause existed.[22]  Similarly, Maryland courts recognize the fluidity of probable cause and give deference to officers making probable cause determinations.[23]  This deference and fact-specific analysis leaves ample room for interpretation when a warrantless search of an automobile is permissible, as in the instant case.[24]

III.  Instant Case

On one evening in January 2015, Officer Sheehan of the Germantown District Community Action Team, was patrolling a high-crime area of Germantown, Maryland.[25]  As Officer Sheehan approached a traffic light, he noticed a defective brake light on the vehicle directly in front of him.[26]  Officer Sheehan activated his patrol vehicle’s emergency system.[27]  While following the vehicle, Officer Sheehan observed the driver and the front-seat passenger making “furtive movements.”[28]  Officer Sheehan testified that the driver, Ms. Johnson, reached into the front-passenger’s (Mr. Haqq’s) seat as if to manipulate something in the center console area.[29]  Based on these observations, Officer Sheehan believed Mr. Haqq and Ms. Johnson were attempting to conceal drugs or weapons.[30]

Upon approaching the vehicle, Officer Sheehan noticed Mr. Haqq hunched over with his hands between his legs.[31]  Officer Sheehan testified that during the traffic stop, Ms. Johnson appeared extremely nervous, beyond the normal baseline of nervousness encountered throughout his career.[32]  Additionally, Mr. Haqq sat completely still in his seat and did not move, even when Ms. Johnson asked for his assistance in retrieving the vehicle’s registration from the glove compartment.[33]

Officer Sheehan requested backup, and Officer Dos Santos and Officer Mancuso arrived on the scene.[34]  The officers then questioned each passenger of the vehicle, including Mr. Helms who was seated in the back.[35]  During this time, Officer Sheehan brought Ms. Johnson to the back of the vehicle to show her the defective brake light.[36]  Officer Sheehan requested to search the vehicle, but Ms. Johnson refused and only consented to a search of her pockets.[37]  Officer Sheehan did not find any drugs or weapons on her person.[38]

Soon after, the canine unit arrived on the scene, and Officer Sheehan requested all passengers to exit the vehicle.[39]  Upon exiting, Mr. Haqq lifted his hands above his head and a search of his person revealed a small bag containing 13.14 grams of marijuana in his waistband.[40]  Upon this discovery, the officers searched the trunk of the vehicle and found a backpack containing a digital scale and 104.72 grams of marijuana in a gallon-sized bag.[41]  The officers arrested Ms. Johnson and Mr. Haqq.[42]

At the conclusion of testimony, Ms. Johnson set forth two theories as to why the court should suppress the evidence of the marijuana found in the vehicle’s trunk.[43]  The suppression court determined that the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle’s trunk.[44]  In making this determination, the suppression court credited the experience and training of the officers and looked at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the search.[45]  Both Mr. Haqq and Ms. Johnson were tried jointly on the charges of conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute.[46]  Ms. Johnson was “sentenced to five years’ incarceration suspended to time served and placed on supervised probation for five years.”[47]

Ms. Johnson appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which reversed the suppression court’s judgment.[48]  The Court of Appeals only addressed Ms. Johnson’s second theory: that the police lacked probable cause to search the vehicle’s trunk.[49]  Ms. Johnson asserted that the intermediate court should apply the Carroll doctrine to determine the scope of probable cause and find that the search was limited only to where Mr. Haqq was sitting.[50]  The State asserted that Ross controlled the scope, and thus, the officers had probable cause to search any part of the vehicle where contraband may have reasonably been stored.[51]  The court agreed with Ms. Johnson and applied Carroll to hold that the scope of the search was limited to the areas in which Mr. Haqq may have concealed contraband in the vehicle.[52]  Thus, the court determined that probable cause did not extend to the vehicle’s trunk.[53]

Thereafter, the State appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the judgment of the intermediate appellate court and remanded the case to consider Ms. Johnson’s first theory.[54]  The Court of Appeals held that the case provided a straightforward application of the automobile exception, which permitted the officers to search every part of the vehicle and its contents that may have concealed the contraband.[55]  Additionally, the Court of Appeals noted that the intermediate appellate court failed to consider the totality of the circumstances in determining whether probable cause existed to search the trunk of the vehicle.[56]

Similar to the intermediate appellate court, the dissent reasoned that Acevedo applied, and the officers were only permitted to search the areas where Mr. Haqq reasonably could have hidden contraband.[57]  Moreover, the dissent noted that there was no probable cause to indicate a common enterprise between Mr. Haqq and Ms. Johnson; thus, the probable cause to search Mr. Haqq should not have attached to Ms. Johnson.[58]

IV.  Analysis

A.  The Carroll Exception Does Not Extend Probable Cause to Justify the Search of the Vehicle’s Trunk.

 The majority opinion asserted that the officers were permitted to search the trunk of Ms. Johnson’s vehicle because probable cause allowed them to search all parts of the vehicle that may have concealed the object of the search.[59]  However, the court here incorrectly applied Ross, which similarly held that officers may only conduct a search in those places in which there is probable cause that the object of the search will be found.[60]

In the instant case, it is evident the officers possessed the requisite probable cause to search Mr. Haqq.[61]  Applying Acevedo, it is also clear that the officers had the ability to search any part of the vehicle in which they had probable cause to believe drugs may have been hidden.[62]  It does not follow, however, that the officers could have reasonably suspected that Mr. Haqq stored additional drugs and drug paraphernalia in the trunk of Ms. Johnson’s vehicle.[63]  None of the facts suggested Mr. Haqq would have had access to the vehicle’s trunk, nor do they suggest Ms. Johnson and Mr. Haqq were involved in a common enterprise which would have justified the search of the vehicle’s trunk.[64]

The majority opinion also asserted that the officers did not need to have a strong belief there were drugs in the vehicle’s trunk,[65] but only needed to show that there was a fair probability drugs were in the vehicle’s trunk.[66]  Although this argument may be valid, none of the facts suggest the officers had any reason to believe there was a “fair probability” drugs would be found in the vehicle’s trunk.[67]  Thus, the search should have been limited only to those places where Mr. Haqq had access to hide the drugs.[68]

B.  The Totality of the Circumstances Does Not Establish Probable Cause to Justify the Officers’ Search of the Vehicle’s Trunk.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle’s trunk based on an analysis of the totality of the circumstances.[69]  The court asserted that Officer Sheehan’s expertise, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Haqq’s “furtive movements,” and the fact that the traffic stop occurred in a high crime area, all presented a reasonable likelihood that illegal activity was occurring within the vehicle.[70]

However, as the dissent pointed out, nervousness is not attributable to criminal activity.[71]  While the court in Pringle held that a common enterprise provides officers with probable cause to search all parties in the enterprise, there was no such enterprise here.[72]  Firstly, the PCP that Officer Sheehan smelled on Mr. Haqq’s breath did not provide evidence of a common enterprise between Mr. Haqq and Ms. Johnson.[73]  Additionally, Ms. Johnson told Officer Sheehan she had only known the other passengers for about a month.[74]  Further, Ms. Johnson provided little reason for Officer Sheehan to believe Mr. Haqq had access to the vehicle’s trunk to store contraband.[75]  The majority also considered Messrs. Haqq and Helms’ prior convictions in finding probable cause.[76]  However, their criminal background only presented probable cause to search the two of them, not Ms. Johnson.[77]  While the totality of the circumstances must fully be assessed, here the facts presented no such justification for the search of the vehicle’s trunk.[78]

V.  Conclusion

The court’s ruling in Johnson allows officers with probable cause to search any part of a vehicle in which they believe the object of a search is hidden.[79]  The court expanded the scope of Carroll and provided great deference to the officers conducting the search.[80]  While the officers in the present case were extremely qualified with numerous years of experience and training, this will not always be true.[81]  In a situation with less qualified officers, the court may reach a different result.  Since the court did not consider this, human error and wrongdoings are more likely to go unnoticed and uncorrected.  In a social environment where the integrity of law enforcement officers has been scrutinized, it is surprising that the court expanded the scope of police officers’ power to conduct warrantless searches of a vehicle.


* Taylor Bayat is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore, where she serves as a staff editor for Law Review. Taylor is also a teaching assistant for Professor William Hubbard’s ILS/Civil Procedure I course and a member of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society. This past summer, Taylor worked as a judicial intern for the Hon. Donna M. Schaeffer in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County.

[1] State v. Johnson, 458 Md. 519, 523, 183 A.3d 119, 122 (2018).

[2] Id. at 529, 183 A.3d at 125.

[3] Id. at 543, 183 A.3d at 134.

[4] Id. at 554, 183 A.3d at 140 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting).

[5] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[6] Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373, 382 (2014) (quoting Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 653 (1995)).

[7] Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153 (1925) (holding that “because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought” a police officer with probable cause does not need a warrant in order to search the vehicle).

[8] See id.

[9]  United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 824 (1982) (providing “probable cause to believe that undocumented aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase.”).

[10] See id. at 825 (emphasizing that a warrantless search of a vehicle could be “no broader and no narrower than a magistrate could legitimately authorize by warrant.”).

[11] See id. at 824.

[12] California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991) (law enforcement officers tracked a package containing marijuana to an address where they witnessed a man dispose of a full package in the trunk of an automobile; officers stopped the vehicle, searched the trunk, and found the package contained marijuana).

[13] See id. at 579–80 (“The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.”).

[14] See Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999) (drug paraphernalia found on the driver of a vehicle gave the officer probable cause to search the purse of a passenger).

[15] Id. at 307.

[16] See id. (holding an officer with probable cause to search a vehicle “may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search”).

[17] See id. at 304 (holding “a car passenger . . . will often be engaged in a common enterprise with the driver, and have the same interest in concealing the fruits or the evidence of their wrongdoing.”).

[18] Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 373–74 (2003) (holding a common enterprise may be reasonably inferred from all passengers of a vehicle).

[19] See id.

[20] See Florida v. Harris, 568 U.S. 237, 244 (2013) (holding probable cause is “a fluid concept—turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts—not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules.” (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 232 (1983))).

[21] See District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 588 (2018) (holding that courts reviewing a probable cause determination should not view each fact “in isolation,” but rather “as a factor in the totality of the circumstances” (quoting Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 372 n.2 (2003))).

[22] See Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 700 (1996) (holding “that a police officer may draw inferences based on his own experience in deciding whether probable cause exists.”).

[23] See Ransome v. State, 373 Md. 99, 104-05, 316 A.2d 901, 904 (2003) (holding the expertise of a police officer may be considered in determining whether probable cause exists).

[24] See Pringle, 540 U.S. at 371 (“Finely tuned standards such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt or by a preponderance of the evidence, useful in formal trials, have no place in the [probable-cause] decision.” (quoting Gates, 462 U.S. at 235)).

[25] State v. Johnson, 458 Md. 519, 524, 183 A.3d 119, 122 (2018).

[26] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[27] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[28] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[29] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[30] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[31] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[32] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[33] Id., 183 A.3d at 122.

[34] Id. at 526, 183 A.3d at 124.

[35] Id., 183 A.3d at 124.

[36] Id. at 527, 183 A.3d at 124.

[37] Id., 183 A.3d at 124.

[38] Id., 183 A.3d at 124.

[39] Id. at 528, 183 A.3d at 125.

[40] Id., 183 A.3d at 125.

[41] Id., 183 A.3d at 125.

[42] Id., 183 A.3d at 125.

[43] Id. at 529, 183 A.3d at 125.

[44] Id., 183 A.3d at 125 (stating that the suppression court concluded the police had developed a reasonable suspicion, which justified holding the passengers beyond the point of a routine traffic stop).

[45] See id. at 529, 183 A.3d at 126 (finding that because the traffic stop occurred in a high crime area, the passengers exhibited an unusual degree of nervousness, and Mr. Haqq demonstrated “exaggerated immobility[,]” the officers could have developed a reasonable suspicion that the individuals inside the vehicle were engaged in criminal activity).

[46] Id. at 530, 183 A.3d at 126.

[47] Id., 183 A.3d at 126.

[48] Johnson v. State, 232 Md. App. 241, 271, 157 A.3d 338, 356 (2017).  On appeal, Ms. Johnson presented two theories; however, the court only addressed the second theory as to whether the vehicle’s trunk was in the permissible scope of probable cause.  Id., 157 A.3d at 356.

[49] Id., 183 A.3d at 125.  The first theory, which went unaddressed by the court, set forth that Ms. Johnson had been detained without the “requisite justification of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity beyond the point at which the concededly lawful traffic stop should have concluded.”  Id., 183 A.3d at 125.

[50] Johnson, 458 Md. at 538, 183 A.3d at 131.

[51] Id., 183 A.3d at 131.

[52] Johnson, 232 Md. App. at 257-58, 271, 157 A.3d at 348, 354.

[53] Id. at 259, 271 A.3d at 348.  The State cited to Ross in claiming that the officers had probable cause to search every aspect of the car in which Mr. Haqq may have concealed contraband.  Id., 271 A.3d at 348.

[54] Johnson, 458 Md. at 532, 183 A.3d at 127.

[55] Id. at 540, 183 A.3d at 132 (applying the Ross scope in determining whether the officers were authorized to search “every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search” (quoting United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 825 (1982))).

[56] Id. at 543, 183 A.3d at 143 (arguing the Court of Special Appeals “isolated certain facts while ignoring or minimizing others, and it drew its own inferences from the facts it did consider, rather than from the inferences drawn by the trained officers and credited by the suppression court as reasonable under the case law.”).

[57] See id. at 547–48, 183 A.3d at 136 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (asserting “Johnson’s front seat passenger was the target of the search, and the officers did not establish an independent link to believe that he would have access to Johnson’s trunk.”).

[58] See id. at 552, 183 A.3d at 139 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (holding “there must be a link between the driver and passenger for probable cause to attach to both.”).

[59] See id. at 540, 183 A.3d at 132 (the officers were authorized to search “every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search” (quoting Ross, 456 U.S. at 825)).

[60] See id. at 547, 183 A.3d at 136 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (“The nature of the search is ‘defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.’” (quoting Ross, 456 U.S. at 824)).

[61] See id. at 528, 183 A.3d at 125.  Upon exiting the vehicle, Mr. Haqq raised his hands above his head and consented to a search of his person.  Id., 183 A.3d at 125.

[62] See California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 579–80 (1991) (finding the police only had probable cause as to a container; therefore, their search was limited to the container rather than the entire vehicle).

[63] See Johnson, 458 Md. at 527, 183 A.3d at 124 (Ms. Johnson told Officer Sheehan she had only known Messrs. Haqq and Helms for about a month).

[64] See id., 183 A.3d at 124.

[65] Id. at 543, 183 A.3d at 134 (“The officers in the present case were not required to believe it more likely than not that the trunk contained additional drugs or drug-related paraphernalia” (citing Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003))).

[66] Id., 183 A.3d at 134 (arguing the officers “needed only to have enough information to support a fair probability that evidence of such crime would be found there” (citing Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983))).

[67] See id. at 551-52, 183 A.3d at 139 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (“I disagree with the State’s reliance on Johnson’s nervousness, and any furtive movements to establish probable cause to search the vehicle’s trunk.”).

[68] See United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 824 (1982) (“Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a [vehicle] contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire [vehicle].”).

[69] Johnson, 458 Md. at 540, 183 A.3d at 132 (holding that Ms. Johnson’s argument “ignores nearly all of the relevant facts and circumstances known to the officers by the time they undertook the search of the trunk.”).

[70] Id. at 541, 183 A.3d at 132 (noting Officer Sheehan as a twelve-year veteran of the Montgomery County Police Department and specializes in patrolling high-crime areas).

[71] Johnson, 458 Md. at 551, 183 A.3d at 138 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (noting that “nervousness, or lack of it, of the driver pulled over by a Maryland State [officer] is not sufficient to form the basis of police suspicion that the driver is engaged in the illegal transportation of drugs.” (quoting Ferris v. State, 355 Md. 356, 388, 735 A.2d 491, 508 (1991))).

[72] See id. at 552, 183 A.3d at 139 (“[T]here must be a link between the driver and passenger for probable cause to attach to both.” (citing State v. Wallace, 372 Md. 137, 158, 812 A.2d 291, 304 (2002))).

[73] Id., 183 A.3d at 139 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (“The police may not impute evidence of a crime found on a passenger to an area of a car that is outside the passenger’s presumed control.” (citing Wallace, at 158–59, 812 A.2d at 304)).

[74] Id. at 527, 183 A.3d at 124.

[75] Id., 183 A.3d at 124.

[76] Id. at 542, 183 A.3d at 133 (the majority views this fact in the totality of the circumstances).

[77] United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, 583 (1948) (holding the presence of a “criminal” in a vehicle does not automatically incriminate the other passengers of the vehicle).

[78] See Johnson, 458 Md. at 552, 183 A.3d at 139 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (“There must be additional, fact-driven, reasoning for the police officers to reasonably believe that the vehicles operator, in this case Johnson, is also engaged in drug activity.”).

[79] See id. at 543, 183 A.3d 134.

[80] See id. at 555, 183 A.3d 140 (Adkins and Hotten, JJ., dissenting) (“[T]he suppression court concluded erroneously that the officers were permitted to search the trunk of the car under the Carroll doctrine.” (quoting Holloway v. State, 232 Md. App. 271, 157 A.3d 356 (2017))).

[81] See id. at 524, 183 A.3d at 122 (noting that Officer Sheehan had served as a police officer for twelve years).

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