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

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The case stems from an August 1999 traffic stop in which a Baltimore County police officer pulls over a car for speeding at 3:16 a.m. The officer discovers $763 in cash and five baggies of crack cocaine concealed inside the vehicle.

Armed with the discovered contraband, the officer threatens to arrest all three occupants of the car unless someone admits to ownership of the drugs and money. After each refuses to confess, the officer takes all three into custody.

Two hours after they arrive at the police station, the front-seat passenger, Joseph Pringle, admits that the drugs and money are his. The police officer releases the driver and the other passenger without charge.

Mr. Pringle was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The conviction was upheld on appeal. But the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals of Maryland, reversed the conviction and set Pringle free in a 4-to-3 decision.

The majority ruled that Pringle's arrest was illegal because the arresting officer did not have enough "probable cause" during the roadside stop to link Pringle individually to the drugs.

The cocaine was discovered behind an armrest in the back seat. The wad of cash was found in the glove compartment. At the time of the traffic stop, Pringle was seated in the front passenger seat, and the court reasoned that Pringle was too far away from the concealed drugs in the back seat to support a rational inference by the police officer that the drugs belonged to him.

Without that rational inference at the time of the roadside stop, the Maryland court ruled, the police officer was not justified in arresting Pringle on charges of possession of cocaine.

In their appeal to the US Supreme Court, Maryland law- enforcement officials argue that the police officer had probable cause to arrest all three individuals in the car, not just Pringle.

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