Maryland v. Pringle

RESPONDENT:Joseph Jermaine Pringle
LOCATION:Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

DOCKET NO.: 02-809
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Maryland Court of Appeals

CITATION: 540 US 366 (2003)
GRANTED: Mar 24, 2003
ARGUED: Nov 03, 2003
DECIDED: Dec 15, 2003

Gary E. Bair – argued the cause for Petitioner
Lisa Kemler – for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Nancy S. Forster – argued the cause for Respondent
Steven R. Shapiro – for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Sri Srinivasan – argued the cause for Petitioner, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

A police officer stopped a car for speeding, searched the car, and seized money from the glove compartment and cocaine from behind the back-seat armrest. The officer arrested the car’s three occupants after they denied ownership of the drugs and money. A state court sentenced Pringle, the front-seat passenger, for possessing and intending to distribute cocaine after he signed a written confession. The state appellate court reversed the conviction, holding that the mere finding of cocaine in the back armrest when Pringle was in the front-seat of a car being driven by its owner was insufficient to establish probable cause for arrest for possession.


Does an arrest of a front-seat passenger in a car driven by its owner, after police find cocaine in the car’s back armrest, lack probable cause and violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures?

Media for Maryland v. Pringle

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 03, 2003 in Maryland v. Pringle

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – December 15, 2003 in Maryland v. Pringle

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 02-809, Maryland against Pringle.

The respondent, Pringle was a front seat passenger in a Nissan Maxima stopped for speeding Northwest of Baltimore about 3 O’clock a.m. by a police officer.

There were two other occupants, the driver and the back seat passenger.

The officer, upon searching the car, seized $763 of rolled up cash from the glove compartment and five glassed in baggys of cocaine from between the back sit arm rest and the back seat.

After all three men denied ownership of the cocaine and money the officer arrested each of them.

A few hours later, Pringle confessed the ownership of the drug.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland by a divided vote reversed Pringle’s conviction concluding that Pringle’s confession should have been suppressed as the fruits of an illegal arrest because the officer did not have probable cause to make a warrantless arrest to them.

We granted certiorari and we now reverse the judgment of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

A warrantless arrest of an individual in a public place for a felony or a misdemeanor committed in the officer’s presence is consistent with the Fourth Amendment if the arrest is supported by probable cause.

It is uncontested in the present case that the officer, upon recovering the five plastic glassine baggies containing suspected cocaine, had probable cause to believe a felony had been committed.

The sole question is whether the officer had probable cause to believe that Pringle committed that crime.

The probable cause standard is incapable of precise definition or quantification in the percentages because it deals with probabilities and depends on the totality of the circumstances.

However, the substance of all the definitions of probable cause is a reasonable ground for belief and guilt.

To determine whether an officer had probable cause to arrest an individual, we examine the events leading up to the arrest and then decide whether these historical facts viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer amount to probable cause.

In this case, Pringle was one of three men riding a car in the early morning hours.

There was $763 of rolled up cash in the glove compartment directly in front of him.

Five plastic glassine baggies of cocaine were behind the back seat arm rest and accessible to all three men.

Upon questioning, the three men failed to offer any information with respect to the ownership of the cocaine or the money.

We think it is an entirely reasonable inference from these facts that any or all of the three occupants had knowledge of and exercised dominion and control over the cocaine.

Thus, a reasonable officer could conclude that there as probable cause to believe Pringle committed the crime of possession of cocaine either solely or jointly.

Pringle’s arrest therefore did not contravene the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

So, the judgment of the Court of Appeals of Maryland is reversed, the case remanded for proceeding not inconsistent with this opinion.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.