Judge: 'Reasonable suspicion' of crime doesn't arise simply from being parked in a bad neighborhood, talking to someone

Moryne Louden's mugshot is all over the internet because the Baltimore Police Department on Oct. 16, 2013, tweeted it with the caption that he "was arrested by #BPDSWD in the 3200 Block of W. Baltimore St. for a handgun violation." The case against him ended up in federal court, where he was charged for being a felon in possession of a firearm—charges that are now imperiled, because today Maryland U.S. District judge James Bredar ruled that virtually all of the evidence against him "must be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree."

The reason: BPD officers' traffic stop that resulted in Louden's arrest was an "unlawful seizure," since they had no "reasonable suspicion" that crime was afoot until just after the stop occurred.

In the motions battle leading up to Bredar's ruling, federal prosecutors presented the facts of what transpired prior to Louden's arrest.

A plain-clothes team of officers in an unmarked police car noticed a blue Ford Windstar parked at the intersection of West Baltimore and South Hilton streets, and watched a man later identified as Louden approach the vehicle, engage in a brief conversation with the driver, and then enter it. Seconds later, another man got in, too.

So the officers, "suspecting that a hand-to-hand drug transaction was about to occur," pulled up on the scene and "activated their lights and exited the vehicle." As soon as they approached the Windstar, Louden got out, and the cops immediately "detected the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from within the Windstar." They asked Louden who had the pot, and he responded: "No one. We just finished smoking. You can check me." So they did, patting him down and finding a handgun in his waistband.

All the prosecutors could come up with in defending the traffic stop was that, thanks to the officers' "knowledge of and experience in this particular part of Baltimore City, as well as their experience investigating drug activity," and the fact that the "officers were personally aware of recent criminal activity that had occurred in the area" and "knew the area to be known for violent crime and drug activity," they had "ample grounds to believe they were witnessing a potential drug transaction."

In Bredar's judicial estimation, that's just not good enough. Had the Windstar been parked illegally, or its taillight been broken, or its windshield cracked, perhaps this case would still have legs, but a man approaching a car in a bad neighborhood, talking to its driver, and getting in does not justify a police response. And if the traffic stop is illegal, it doesn't matter that Louden consented to a pat-down and had a gun.

With any luck, this story will have a happy ending. Louden's been out on pre-trial supervised release, and according to a Baltimore Sun story by Justin George that ran in July, called "Transforming cars and lives," he's been getting job training as a car detailer at a nonprofit program for offenders called Vehicles for Change. When Louden got his certificate for completing the program, he was wearing a court-ordered ankle bracelet and tearfully told the audience, according to the article, "I want to thank Vehicles for Change, because we still be changing." Perhaps, because in all likelihood Louden will now beat his federal charges, keeping his freedom will give him a better chance than prison to straighten out his life. 

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