By Jack Ryan
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
The Court concluded that the arrest of Pringle
which led to his incriminating statement at the station
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.