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Defendant’s Flight From Police’s Illegal Frisk Doesn’t Render Improperly Obtained Evidence Admissible in Maryland

by Anthony Accurso 

The Court of Appeals of Maryland held that a defendant’s flight during an illegal stop and frisk did not attenuate the link between the officers’ misconduct and the discovery of evidence to justify the court’s denial of the defendant’s suppression motion. 

Tamere Thornton was sitting in his car parked across the street from his home when three Baltimore City police officers initiated a traffic stop ostensibly because his car was parked illegally. After a short discussion, an officer ordered Thornton to exit the vehicle for a pat-down search. During the pat-down, Thornton took off running but was quickly apprehended. After officers cuffed Thornton and picked him up off the ground, they discovered a handgun on the ground.

Because Thornton had a 2008 prior for murder in the second degree, he was charged and convicted for possession of a firearm after having been convicted of a disqualifying crime.

Thornton attempted to suppress the evidence of the gun prior to trial, but was denied by the circuit court. The denial was affirmed by the Court of Special Appeals, which invoked the attenuation doctrine. They essentially said his flight from the frisk constituted a new crime, which overrode the illegal stop and frisk. 

On review by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the Court reversed this ruling. 

The Court first analyzed the legality of the stop. During the suppression hearing, the officers admitted their purpose in the “high drug area” was to look for “drugs, weapons, and other contraband.” Unlike a routine traffic stop, the officers never asked for his license and registration, nor did they run his plate. After Thornton politely declined to allow the officers to search his vehicle, they detained him and bluffed about summoning a K-9 unit to gauge his reaction. When this failed to elicit a reaction, officers had him exit the vehicle for a frisk. 

Under Sellman v. State, 144 A.3d 771 (Md. 2016), “The frisk must be justified at its inception” and requires the officer “to have specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion.”

Also under Sellman, the court should give deference to “specific reasonable inferences” drawn “from [the officer’s] experience,” but “the court should give no weight to an officer’s inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.”

Further, “the purpose of a frisk is not to discover evidence of a crime, but rather to protect the police officer and bystanders from harm by checking for weapons.” Id. 

The officers claimed that Thornton made “furtive movements” near his waistband while seated in the vehicle, which indicated to them the presence of a weapon. 

The Court rejected such suspicious inferences from otherwise innocent conduct (he could have had a cellphone in his waistband) and determined the Government failed to prove the officers’ conduct was reasonable and justified. 

The Court then analyzed Thornton’s flight from the officers and its relation to the attenuation doctrine under the factors enumerated in Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975): (l) the “temporal proximity” between the unlawful conduct and the discovery of the evidence, (2) the “presence of intervening circumstances,” and (3) “particularly, the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.” Likening the case to the circumstances in State v. Owens, 992 N.E.2d 940 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013), the Court determined that once the officers had decided to frisk Thornton, they were going to discover his gun. Because the frisk was pretextual and unjustified, and because Thornton’s flight itself did not cause the discovery of the gun, his conduct did not break “the causal connection between the unlawful police conduct and the derivative evidence.” Sizer v. State, 174 A.3d 326 (Md. 2017). That is, under the facts of the case, Thornton’s flight didn’t “constitute an intervening circumstance that, alone, purges the taint of [the] Fourth Amendment violation” under the attenuation doctrine.

In providing guidance for courts in future cases, the Court announced: “We hold that where an individual attempts to flee from an unlawful Terry frisk, whether the individual’s act purges the taint of the Fourth Amendment violation must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis by balancing the factors set for in Brown.” 

Accordingly, the Court held that Thornton’s flight from the police during an illegal stop and frisk did not warrant the denial of his suppression motion, and the Court reversed his conviction with instructions to exclude the gun from evidence. See: Thornton v. State, 214 A.3d 34 (Md. 2019).


Editor’s note: This opinion contains excellent discussions on furtive movements and Terry frisks as well as the Exclusionary Rule and the Attenuation Doctrine. Anyone interested in those topics should read this opinion. 

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Related legal case

Thornton v. State



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