This is an audio case brief of Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366 (2003).The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents


At 3:16 a.m. on August 7, 1999, a Baltimore County Police officer stopped a Nissan Maxima for speeding. There were three occupants in the car: Donte Partlow, the driver and owner, Pringle, the front-seat passenger, and Otis Smith, the back-seat passenger. The officer asked Partlow for his license and registration. When Partlow opened the glove compartment to retrieve the vehicle registration, the officer observed a large amount of rolled-up money in the glove compartment. The officer returned to his patrol car with Partlow’s license and registration to check the computer system for outstanding violations. The computer check did not reveal any violations. The officer returned to the stopped car, had Partlow get out, and issued him an oral warning.

After a second patrol car arrived, the officer asked Partlow if he had any weapons or narcotics in the vehicle. Partlow indicated that he did not. Partlow then consented to a search of the vehicle. The search yielded $763 from the glove compartment and five plastic glassine baggies containing cocaine from behind the back-seat armrest. When the officer began the search the armrest was in the upright position flat against the rear seat. The officer pulled down the armrest and found the drugs, which had been placed between the armrest and the back seat of the car.

The officer questioned all three men about the ownership of the drugs and money, and told them that if no one admitted to ownership of the drugs he was going to arrest them all. The men offered no information regarding the ownership of the drugs or money. All three were placed under arrest and transported to the police station.

Later that morning, Pringle waived his Miranda rights, and gave an oral and written confession in which he acknowledged that the cocaine belonged to him, that he and his friends were going to a party, and that he intended to sell the cocaine or “[u]se it for sex.” Pringle maintained that the other occupants of the car did not know about the drugs, and others were released.

The trial court denied Pringle’s motion to suppress his confession as the fruit of an illegal arrest, holding that the officer had probable cause to arrest Pringle. A jury convicted Pringle of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to 10 years’ incarceration without the possibility of parole. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland, by divided vote, reversed, holding that, absent specific facts tending to show Pringle’s knowledge and dominion or control over the drugs, “the mere finding of cocaine in the back armrest when [Pringle] was a front seat passenger in a car being driven by its owner is insufficient to establish probable cause for an arrest for possession.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case:


Whether the officer had probable cause to believe that Pringle committed the crime pf possession of a controlled substance


Under the Fourth Amendment,  people are to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, … and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause. The substance of all the definitions of probable cause is a reasonable ground for belief of guilt and that the belief of guilt must be particularized with respect to the person to be searched or seized.


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 in a Nissan Maxima at 3:16 a.m. There was $763 of rolled-up cash in the glove compartment directly in front of Pringle.  Five plastic glassine baggies of cocaine were behind the back-seat armrest 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 an entirely reasonable inference from these facts that any or all three of the occupants had knowledge of, and exercised dominion and control over, the cocaine. Thus, a reasonable officer could conclude that there was probable cause to believe Pringle committed the crime of possession of cocaine, either solely or jointly.

The court also added that a person’s mere propinquity to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not, without more, give rise to probable cause to search that person. Where the standard is probable cause, a search or seizure of a person must be supported by probable cause particularized with respect to that person. This requirement cannot be undercut or avoided by simply pointing to the fact that coincidentally there exists probable cause to search or seize another or to search the premises where the person may happen to be.

However in the present case the court found that there was an individualized suspicion that Pringle committed a crime.


The officer had probable cause to believe that Pringle had committed the crime of possession of a controlled substance. Pringle’s arrest therefore did not contravene the Fourth Amendments.

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