The Supreme Court says police officers may arrest all occupants of a vehicle if they discover drugs inside and everyone denied owning them. The Washington Post says that in a unanimous ruling, the court ruled yesterday that such an arrest in Baltimore County was consistent with the constitutional requirement that arrests be based on “probable cause.” That is because under the circumstances it was reasonable to assume that one, some, or all of the people in a car were involved in illegal activity.
Maryland’s highest court had overturned the conviction of one man on the ground that police had lacked a reason to think he was involved in a crime. “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,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote. The decision means that in similar cases involving drugs, officers may err on the side of arresting the innocent without violating the Constitution.
Tracy Maclin, a professor of law at Boston University, said the opinion could expose innocent people to arrest in a wide variety of situations. “If someone has 20 friends over, and a cop comes to the house and finds contraband under the couch pillow, what’s to prevent the police from arresting everyone in the house?”, Maclin said.
The case began at 3:16 a.m. on Aug. 7, 1999, when a police officer stopped a car for speeding and found $763 in cash wadded up in the glove compartment and five plastic bags containing crack cocaine stuffed behind a back-seat armrest. The officer told the driver and two passengers that if none of them confessed to ownership of the drugs, he would arrest all three. They kept silent, and he made the arrests.