In Maryland v. Pringle, 124 S. Ct. 795 (2003) decided in December of this term, the Supreme Court held that cocaine discovered in the passenger compartment of a vehicle provided probable cause to arrest all three occupants in the vehicle based on a possession of narcotics charge.

Pringle was the front seat passenger in a vehicle that was stopped for speeding at 3:16 a.m. on August 7, 1999. When the operator of the vehicle reached into the glove box to get his registration, the officer observed a wadded up roll of money. Following a computer check, the officer returned to the driver, had him step from the vehicle and gave him an oral warning.

When a second officer arrived on the scene, the driver was asked whether he had any weapons or drugs in the vehicle. He responded that he did not and gave the officers consent to search the vehicle.

Upon searching the vehicle, the officers found five plastic baggies behind the rear seat armrest as well as the $763.00 of rolled up money from the glove box.

The officers questioned all three occupants of the vehicle and told the occupants that if no one admitted ownership of the cocaine, all three would be arrested. When no one admitted to ownership, all three occupants were arrested as promised.

At the station, Pringle, the front seat passenger, was questioned after waiving his Miranda rights. Pringle admitted that the cocaine was his and that he was taking it to a party where planned on selling it or exchanging it for sex. Pringle was charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine.

A Maryland Appellate court reversed Pringle’s conviction after concluding that officer’s lacked probable cause to arrest Pringle since the cocaine was found in the back seat while Pringle had been a front seat passenger. The court stated that absent specific facts tending to show Pringle’s knowledge [of the cocaine in the car] or his dominion and control over the cocaine, there was not probable cause to arrest him. The State of Maryland appealed this decision to the United States Supreme Court.

In a unanimous decision, the Court held that officers had probable cause to arrest all of the occupants in the vehicle. The Court pointed out that once the officers found the cocaine, there was certainly probable cause to believe a crime was being committed; the only remaining question was whether there was probable cause to believe that Pringle was the person committing the crime.

The Court pointed out that the “long prevailing standard of probable cause protects citizens from rash and unreasonable interferences with privacy and from unfounded charges of crime, giving fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”

In analyzing the historical facts that the officers were aware of at the time of the arrest the Court noted that the stop occurred at 3:16 a.m.; there were 3 men in the vehicle; the glove compartment directly in front of Pringle contained a wadded-up roll of money; 5 baggies of cocaine found during a consent search were accessible to all of the occupants of the vehicle and the denial by all three men of knowledge of the ownership of the cocaine.

The Court distinguished a vehicle from a commercial establishment in concluding that in a passenger vehicle it is more likely that the occupants are part of a common enterprise and it is unlikely that a suspect transporting cocaine for sale would invite a completely innocent person into this enterprise.

The Court concluded that the arrest of Pringle which led to his incriminating statement at the station was valid.

Note: The Court did cite to the Maryland possession statute which defines possession as “the exercise of actual or constructive dominion or control over a thing by one or more persons.” This definition is important to the determination of probable cause. Agencies are advised to review “possession” under local law.

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