Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No.: 116145002
Meredith, Kehoe, Berger, JJ.
conducting what the Baltimore Police Department called a
"traffic initiative" in downtown Baltimore, members
of the Department stopped Clifton Johnson, who was halted at
a red light, for failure to wear a seat belt. As a result of
that stop, the police discovered an open warrant for
Johnson's arrest, as well as a loaded handgun under the
driver's seat of the vehicle. Johnson was charged with
illegal possession of a regulated firearm, wearing, carrying
and transporting a handgun on his person and in a vehicle,
possession of ammunition, and operating a vehicle while not
wearing a seat belt. Johnson filed a motion to suppress the
evidence relating to the handgun, which was denied. A jury of
the Circuit Court for Baltimore City convicted Johnson of
illegal possession of a regulated firearm, wearing, carrying,
and transporting a handgun on his person and in a vehicle,
and possession of ammunition. Johnson has appealed his
convictions and presents the following question:
Did the trial court err in denying appellant's motion
to suppress because the evidence was discovered as a result
of an illegal traffic checkpoint?
conclude that the traffic initiative in this case does not
constitute a "checkpoint" for purposes of the
Fourth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. IV, and hold that there
was no violation of Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights in
this case. We will affirm the convictions.
7, 2016, at around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., seven officers from the
Baltimore City Police Department stationed themselves at the
intersection of West Pratt Street and South Payson Street to
conduct a traffic initiative in order to find infractions of
vehicles pertaining to seatbelts and cell phones. Two of
those officers, Officer Zachary Serio and Officer Karl
Dauphin, testified at the suppression hearing. Officer Serio
was positioned, on foot, near the traffic light, and was
looking for drivers halted at the light who were not wearing
their seat belts. Officer Serio explained that Pratt Street
was a one-way street, travelling east towards the city
center, and that traffic was moderate at the time.
traffic was stopped at the red light, Officer Serio walked in
front of or beside vehicles and to see if the occupants were
wearing their seat belts or were talking on a cell phone. If
the light was green, the officers did not initiate any
traffic stops, even if they observed an infraction. Instead,
the officers allowed the vehicles to proceed on Pratt Street,
unimpeded so as, according to Officer Dauphin, not to
"interrupt the traffic." In that way, drivers were
stopped only during the red light sequences and the flow of
traffic was not adversely affected. Officer Serio testified:
Q. So can you briefly describe like what exactly you do?
A. Whenever there was a red light and the cars were
stationary, I would walk through and see if I could find
any drivers of vehicles that were not wearing their seat
belts or were on their cell phones at this time.
Q. Okay. And if someone wasn't wearing a seat belt or
on their cell phone, what would you do?
A. I would advise them to pull off onto Payson Street where
there would be another officer who would go forth and write
Serio testified that there were no places where a car could
turn around between those two locations; that there were no
signs indicating that the police were conducting a
checkpoint; and that this police activity was not advertised
in any manner. Additionally, he confirmed that orange traffic
cones were located on the side of the street, but only for
purposes of officer safety, and were not used in any way to
funnel traffic down to one lane. In his testimony, Officer
Dauphin clarified that the traffic cones were placed between
cars parked on Pratt Street and the curb as a signal to
motorists parking their vehicles that officers were present.
Officers parked their police cruisers on Payson Street and
not on Pratt Street in order to avoid obstructing traffic.
addition to Officers Serio and Dauphin, there were
approximately five other officers at the intersection of
Pratt and Payson, and another seven police officers stationed
at the preceding signalized intersection west of their
location. This second group of officers would alert Officers
Serio and Dauphin if they saw someone driving by without a
seat belt or while talking on a cell phone.
Serio further testified that all the officers involved were
recent graduates of the police academy. Although the
initiative was done at the suggestion of a supervisor, no
supervisors were present on the street. Further, no drug
sniffing dogs were present at either intersection. The
initiative ended at around 6:00 or 6:30 p.m.
Stop of Johnson
through the initiative, at around 5:35 p.m., Johnson stopped
his vehicle at the red light located at Pratt and Payson
Streets. Officer Serio walked by the driver's side of the
vehicle and noticed that Johnson was not wearing his seat
belt. Officer Serio told Johnson to pull over to the side of
the street to Officer Dauphin's location. Officer Serio
then notified Officer Dauphin about his observations.
Johnson was pulling over, Officer Dauphin ran a check on the
vehicle's license plate number. The officer learned that
the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration did not have any
record for the license plate that was displayed on
Johnson's vehicle. Specifically, the information came
back as "No record found."
Dauphin then approached the driver's side of the vehicle,
and also observed that Johnson was not wearing a seat belt.
Unable to provide his driver's license or the
registration for the vehicle, Johnson gave Officer Dauphin
his name and date of birth. Using that limited information,
Officer Dauphin ascertained that there was a possible open
warrant for Johnson. Officer Dauphin stepped to the rear of
the vehicle and called in to the Baltimore Police Department
"Hot Desk" to confirm Johnson's warrant status.
As this was occurring, Officer Serio maintained watch over
Johnson and noticed that he "hunched over with his left
shoulder" and placed his left hand underneath the
Dauphin then received confirmation that Johnson was wanted on
the open arrest warrant and was advised to take him into
custody. Following this confirmation, Johnson was ordered out
of the car, handcuffed, and placed under arrest. He was also
given a citation for failure to wear a seat belt.
there was no license plate record associated with the vehicle
and it was, according to Officer Dauphin, "technically
illegally [sic] for it to be on the street," the
officers determined that the vehicle had to be towed from the
scene. Prior to towing the vehicle, the officers conducted an
inventory search. During that inventory search, Officer
Dauphin found a loaded .357 Smith and Wesson revolver under
the front driver's seat. Moreover, Officer Dauphin
testified that he saw the handgun on the floor as soon as he
opened the driver's side door.
in the Circuit Court
to Md. Rules 4-252 and 4-253, Johnson filed a motion to
suppress the handgun. A hearing was held, at which the court
heard the testimony of Officer Serio and Officer Dauphin. At
the close of testimony, defense counsel made two arguments.
First, counsel asserted that Johnson was stopped at an
unlawful checkpoint because the traffic initiative did not
satisfy the multi-factor test enunciated in Little v.
State, 300 Md. 485 (1984), and so did not pass
constitutional muster. Second, assuming that the stop was
illegal, counsel contended that the discovery of
Johnson's arrest warrant did not attenuate the unlawful
stop based on the U.S. Supreme Court's analyses in
Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975), and Utah
v. Strieff, ___U.S.___, 136 S.Ct. 2056 (2016). The State
responded that the traffic initiative was not a checkpoint;
instead, this was simply a number of police officers making
observations inside those vehicles that were halted by a
traffic control device. Further, the State argued that the
police had probable cause to stop Johnson because, not only
was Johnson's vehicle not properly registered, but
Johnson also had an open arrest warrant. Therefore, the
handgun was discovered through a lawful inventory search.
motions court agreed with the State, concluding that the
traffic initiative was not a checkpoint. The court
distinguished the traffic initiative from a checkpoint by
[A] checkpoint involves stopping a vehicle. Not one
vehicle, but stopping every vehicle for the purpose of
monitoring something. The testimony in this case is that no
one was stopped except if a violation was noted by the them
[sic] driving by and then they were directed to pull over
and get their ticket. And when they pulled over to get
their ticket, their license was run.
This is not a checkpoint case. This is a use of a lot of
young bodies and young eyes to observe the street with
great particularity driving by a two block period.
But the one person specifically asked, and that was Officer
Serio, said if the light was green at what we believe is
Smallwood Street and the light was green at Payson Street
and you drove by, could you just - just drive by? The
answer was yes. You could be clear there in a minute or
two. That's not a checkpoint.
In a checkpoint, which cases arise out of literally the -
the border stops that were converted into other forms of
police investigative techniques, everybody gets stopped.
Everybody gets talked to.
* * *
I do not believe that the officers in this case violated
anyone's constitutional rights by watching people as
they stopped at a red light to see if they had their seat
belt on or were foolish enough to be using a cell phone in
the presence of a police officer.
on those findings, the court ruled that:
If there's no checkpoint, there's no illegality in
the stop, and I will rule as a matter of law the stop did
not take place until Mr. Johnson was waved to pull around
onto Payson Street and the car came to a halt.
It was because Officer Serio had already seen him to be
driving without his seatbelt on, that at that time Officer
Dauphin - Dauphin ran the license and found reason to
engage the Appellant beyond the seatbelt ticket that he did
get according to Officer Serio.
The intrusion was minimal and all addressed specifically
for the purpose of handling the traffic situation. As such,
I find no violation of the Appellant's Fourth Amendment
rights involving the stop and his arrest.
court then denied the motion to suppress.
trial, a jury convicted Johnson of illegal possession of a
regulated firearm, wearing, carrying, and transporting a
handgun on his person and in a vehicle, and possession of
ammunition. Johnson was sentenced to eight years for illegal
possession of a regulated firearm, the first five without
possibility of parole, and ...