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When is a Terry Stop Legal in Maryland?

When is a Terry Stop Legal in Maryland?

A police officer is allowed to briefly stop and detain a person for “purposes of investigation” if the officer has “reasonable suspicion” that the subject has or is about to commit a crime. This is known as a Terry stop after a 1968 United States Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio. Courts have consistently held that a Terry stop does not violate a suspect’s constitutional rights when the officer has a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity.”

Basically, the officer must have some factual basis for initiating the stop. A “reasonable suspicion” is a fairly low bar to clear. It is lower than “probable cause,” which is the standard for actually arresting a suspect. It is obviously much lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the standard for a criminal conviction.

Court of Special Appeals Upholds Misdemeanor Theft Conviction

Judges are often quite deferential to law enforcement when it comes to assessing Terry stops. A recent unpublished decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Hurley v. State, provides a case in point. A police officer in Ocean City received a dispatch regarding the theft of a “brass valve fire cover” from a local condominium complex. The dispatch provided a general description of the suspect as a “white male, 5-foot-11-inches, about 170 pounds, [and] a scruffy face.” The suspect was seen stealing the fire cover before driving away in a white utility van.

While on patrol, the officer saw a parked white utility van. The officer later testified she thought the van “seemed suspicious.” A man–the defendant in this case–exited the van. The officer said the defendant matched the description of the theft suspect.

At this point, the officer effectively initiated a Terry stop. The officer asked the defendant for his identification. The defendant answered questions about what he was doing in the area. The defendant even acknowledged he was “in the area” of the condominium when the theft occurred. At this point, the officer called for backup and asked an eyewitness to identify the defendant as the suspect. This ultimately led to the defendant’s arrest.

At trial, the defense argued the Terry stop was illegal. The judge disagreed and denied a motion to suppress the evidence gathered as a result of the officer’s initial detention. The defendant was ultimately convicted of misdemeanor theft and malicious destruction of property, for which he was sentenced to 90 days home confinement and probation.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the conviction. It agreed with the trial judge the officer’s actions were lawful under the circumstances. The appellate court said “there was reasonable articulable suspicion for the [officer] to objectively believe that [the defendant] was involved in the prior reported theft … on the same day he was stopped in the area.” The subsequent eyewitness identification only confirmed that reasonable suspicion.

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.