D.C. police's search for drugs on D.C. teen is ruled illegal

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

A few days before Christmas 2005 at nearly midnight, a uniformed District police officer patrolling the Sursum Corda neighborhood in Northwest heard a 16-year-old on a corner call out his name and ask, "What's up?"

That was before the yelling.

And it was the yelling -- not the $974 in cash or the 24 baggies of crack cocaine that police later found on the teenager -- that landed Officer Robert Elliott and the juvenile in a rare but important case before the D.C. Court of Appeals.

The appeals court said Thursday that the teen had been searched unreasonably after a flawed arrest for disorderly conduct. The decision angered the city's police union and overturned a lower court's decision that concluded that the youth had been disorderly and had crack that he intended to distribute.

If prosecutors wanted to retry the teenager, identified in court papers as T.L., for drug possession, they "theoretically" were free to do so, the appeals court said. But prosecutors cannot use the crack they found hidden in T.L.'s pants because they had searched him illegally.

As described in the appeals court opinion:

Elliott was driving in the 1100 block of First Place NW in the neighborhood near Union Station on Dec. 22, 2005, when he saw men on a corner "notorious" for drive-by shootings and drug dealing.

T.L. called out, "Hey, Elliott, what's up?" The group dispersed, but T.L. remained as Elliott asked him, "You got any drugs or guns on [you]?"

T.L. answered, "Yo, Officer Elliott, you know me. I ain't got no drugs or guns. . . . Go ahead and search me."

Elliott did. He found two "wads" of cash totaling $974 in the teen's coat and pants pockets. Elliott seized the cash, telling T.L. that he was taking it because they were in a high drug-trafficking area and it was "a large amount of currency to have on your person."

If T.L. could produce a pay stub, Elliott told him, he "possibly" could get the cash back after it was processed at the police station.

T.L. began calling for his mother and yelling: "They're taking my money. I work at McDonald's. I got that money working for McDonald's."

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