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Drugs in the car, and no one owns up. Is everyone liable?

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When the US Supreme Court announces its decision in a case called Maryland v. Pringle sometime next year, it may become required reading for every American parent with a teenage child.

That's because the court will decide whether police may arrest all passengers riding in a car in which hidden contraband is discovered.

It doesn't matter that your son or daughter does not use narcotics or was unaware narcotics were in the car. The question being presented Monday in oral argument to the nation's highest court is whether people's mere presence in a car where someone has concealed drugs is enough to arrest everyone for possession of those drugs.

"This case has broad implications, especially for those of us with teenaged children," says Sherrie Glasser, an assistant public defender in Baltimore. "My sons frequently get rides home from friends on weekends."

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures in part by requiring that police develop individualized suspicion of illegal conduct prior to arresting someone.

At issue in Maryland v. Pringle is whether the same level of suspicion can be applied equally to everyone in a car containing contraband to justify multiple arrests.

Law-enforcement officials from 21 states and the Justice Department downplay the possibility that unknowing passengers may be swept up in drug busts.

"Individuals involved in drug trafficking are unlikely to carry out their crimes in the immediate company of innocent bystanders, especially within the close confines of an automobile," says US Solicitor General Theodore Olson in a friend-of-the-court brief. "Discovery of contraband in an automobile casts suspicion on all the vehicle's passengers in the crime."

Rather than an innocent teen, the case before the high court involves a far less sympathetic defendant - an admitted crack- cocaine dealer.


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