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Appeal this nonsense

May 20, 1997

Maryland's top law-enforcement officials may be headed to the Supreme Court for the second time in 12 months, following a Maryland Court of Appeals decision that, in not challenged, would let passengers in a car stopped by police walk away from the scene. It's another decision that demonstrates how far removed some judges are from ordinary life.

In the first case to go to the nation's highest court, Maryland officials argued that for the safety of the law enforcement personnel involved in traffic stops, officers should be able to order everyone out of the car, regardless of whether or they've done anything illegal, or even suspicious. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Maryland's favor in that case Feb. 19.

In the latest case, a passenger in a car stopped for running red light exited the car and began to leave the scene. Despite police requests, the passenger refused to stop and was arrested for disorderly conduct and battery.

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"Without some explanation," Chief Judge Robert Bell wrote, "We were unable to determine why it was safer for the officer to detain (the defendant) rather than allow him to walk away from the scene."

Allow us to provide one for the judge: When a vehicle is stopped, the officer must have control of the scene. For the same reason that officers must have the authority to order everyone out of the car, they must also have the authority to order passengers to stay nearby.

Consider this possibility: A car with one driver and three passengers is stopped by an officer. Each of the three passengers takes off in a different direction. While one of the three distracts the officer, the other two jump him from behind.

Judge Bell couldn't imagine such a possibility because he probably doesn't make too many traffic stops where he has to wonder whether the driver has a weapon under the seat. Maryland officials shouldn't let his lack of imagination keeping them from going to the high court to protect Maryland officers' lives.

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