Stories pile up but police say searches are legal
A year ago this New Year’s Eve, John Filippidis of Florida was driving south with his family on Interstate 95 when the Maryland Transportation Authority Police pulled over his black Ford Expedition and proceeded to raid it while his twins, wife and daughter looked on — separated in the back seats of different police cruisers.
The officers were searching for Mr. Filippidis‘ Florida-licensed, palm-size Kel-Tec .380 semi-automatic handgun, which he left at home locked in his safe. (Maryland does not recognize handgun permits issued by other states.)
When the search turned up nothing, Mr. Filippidis, 51, was allowed to go and was issued only a speeding warning.
The incident gained national attention. Mr. Filippidis went on multiple radio programs and described in detail how scared and outraged he and his family were. He wondered: How did the police know he was licensed for concealed carry, and what right did they have to search through his personal items on the side of the busy interstate filled with holiday travelers on that 10-degree day?
“My wife’s hysterical, shaking and crying,” Mr. Filippidis recalled in an interview with The Washington Times. “I don’t have a criminal record. I own a business. I’m a family man, and I tried to explain that to [the officer]. But he had a bad attitude, didn’t want to hear my story. He just wanted to find that gun and take me away from my family. That was his goal, but he couldn’t do it, because I didn’t have a gun, like I told him.”
Mr. Filippidis‘ case earned the support of Second Amendment advocates and subsequent apologies from the MDTA. But an internal police review concluded his stop and search were lawful and did not violate police protocols.
Those findings, however, have not satisfied other out-of-state gun owners, who worry that they, too, have been targeted for minor traffic stops in Maryland because they have concealed weapons permits. Their stories are accumulating.
John Tonnesen IV of Lake Worth, Florida, was pulled over and arrested after a search of his work truck — by the same officer who stopped Mr. Filippidis — turned up his .45-caliber Ruger, licensed in the state of Florida. He doesn’t believe the stop was coincidental.
“It was unloaded and stuffed into a bag far from me,” Mr. Tonnesen told The Times. “There’s scanners in Maryland that scan every tag, and Florida is one of their target vehicles. They’ll find whatever reason they can to pull you over.”
MDTA denies it targets out-of-state gun owners and noted the review of Mr. Fillipides earlier traffic stop concluded the officers did nothing wrong.
“The MDTA Police conducted a review of the traffic stop and have concluded that the stop and subsequent search of the vehicle were justified,” spokesman Jonathan Green wrote in an emailed statement. “The investigation did not reveal any violations of law or agency policy.”
The officer who stopped both gun owners is “assigned to the I-95 corridor where there is a large volume of out of state travelers,” Mr. Green said.
Baltimore-based criminal defense lawyer Paul Kramer says these type of stops and searches happen far too often in Maryland and are a waste of taxpayer money. Mr. Kramer represented a Pennsylvania security officer who was pulled over in the state for speeding. The Maryland officer asked Mr. Kramer’s client whether he had a gun in the car, and once the man acknowledged he did, the officer arrested him for having the gun and the cartridge in the same locked container — not separated, as per Maryland law.
“You think that Maryland would honor legitimate people with guns rather than charging people who are legitimately carrying but doing it incorrectly,” said Mr. Kramer, who was former deputy U.S. attorney for Maryland. “I would think that the police would want to take the time to go after those people who don’t have a legitimate right to have a gun rather than locking up people who have a valid license.
“An otherwise law-abiding citizen can get arrested here. It’s just a waste of officer time and resources. The police should let those people go,” he said.
Maryland is one of the toughest gun control states in the nation and passed the Maryland Firearm Safety Act of 2013, which, among its provisions, bans 45 assault weapons and limits gun magazines to 10 rounds. Maryland also has strict laws governing the transportation of guns and issues concealed carry only on a “need-based” determination. Maryland does not recognize any out-of-state carry licenses.
Gun rights advocates are trying to pressure Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a Republican, to get involved in a legal effort by a coalition of gun owners and gun rights groups to invalidate the law. Twenty-one states have filed briefs with the court supporting the challenge. In a news conference in November after winning the election, however, Mr. Hogan said he would leave it to the courts to decide.
That’s not stopping advocates like Mr. Tonnesen, 50, from pleading to Mr. Hogan to investigate whether Maryland is targeting out-of-state concealed-carry holders.
On his way up north to visit family for the holidays this year, Mr. Tonnesen left his weapon behind but came armed with a letter addressed to Mr. Hogan instead, detailing his arrest last year and questioning why Maryland is using its limited resources to target out-of-staters.
“I got six months probation before adjudication on my record, and I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr. Tonnesen said. “My father gave me my first rifle when I was eight. I have respect for guns and know how to use them. A terrible injustice happened to me, and it’s a phenomenal waste of the state’s resources that the governor should be aware [of].”
Mr. Hogan’s office confirmed receipt of the letter but declined further comment on it.
As governor, Mr. Hogan will “uphold both the U.S. Constitution and the laws of Maryland; he will not overturn existing Maryland law and will work across party lines to reduce gun violence,” Hogan spokeswoman Erin Montgomery told The Times.
Academics say Mr. Hogan is likely to stay far away from gun control issues as he begins his tenure as a rare Republican elected official in a mostly blue state.
“Of course, some conservatives would love to see Maryland’s gun control law changed, but Hogan recognizes the political reality that Maryland is a liberal state — and if he wants to accomplish anything economically, he’s going to have to stay away from the social issues,” said David Lublin, a professor of political science at American University who runs a blog, Seventh State, dedicated to Maryland politics. “Gun control is popular in the state, and, although I don’t see him strengthening it, a sort of vagueness suits him well on the issue.”
Mr. Hogan ran in the blue state on his strengths as a businessman — someone who understood working-class families and the consequences of increased taxes.
With Democrats holding nine of the state’s 10 seats in Congress, having large majorities in both state houses, and with the attorney general and state comptroller both being Democrats, if Mr. Hogan wants to generate good will to pass through some of his economic changes, he will have to stay away from gun control, which the majority of the state favors, Mr. Lublin said.
According to a 2013 poll conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Inc., which surveyed more than 800 of the state’s registered voters, 58 percent said they support the gun control law enacted under Gov. Martin O’Malley.
As for the MDTA, officials maintain only people who are committing traffic violations are pulled over, not those who have out-of-state concealed carry licenses.
“It is important to note that no gun-permitting information is programmed into any License Plate Reader units accessible to MDTA Police,” Mr. Green said.
In Mr. Filippidis‘ case, he was pulled over because he was going 72 mph in a 55 mph zone and was tailgating the officer, Mr. Green said.
“The officer observed the concealed carry gun permit while the driver was searching for his driver’s license and vehicle registration in his wallet,” Mr. Green said.
“After personally observing the gun permit, the officer asked the driver to step from the vehicle and inquired about the location of the weapon,” Mr. Green said. “The driver denied that there was a weapon in the vehicle.
“The officer returned to the vehicle to ask the occupant of the front passenger seat about the location of the gun. The occupant of the front passenger seat indicated that the gun was possibly in the glove box or the console of the vehicle and reached for the glove box before being advised by the officer to stop.”
“The officer who stopped Mr. Filippidis smelled the odor of marijuana in the vehicle on his initial approach of the vehicle,” Mr. Green said. “Based on the conflicting stories regarding the location of the gun, the observations made while the vehicle was being stopped and the suspected odor of marijuana, the officer had probable cause to search the vehicle for possible controlled dangerous substances (CDS) and the weapon.”
Mr. Filippidis vehemently denies there was any smell of marijuana in his car, and he didn’t know that was the excuse used to justify the search of his SUV. He did say he may have been going a little over the speed limit, and his wife was confused about the whereabouts of his gun.
“If they smelled pot, why didn’t they arrest me for pot?” Mr. Filippidis said. “This whole thing just doesn’t add up. Smoking in front of my kids driving home from Christmas with the family? Come on. We walked away from the entire incident without even a ticket — for anything.”
As for Mr. Tonnesen, a search of his vehicle was justified after the same officer felt threatened and that Mr. Tonnesen was hiding something as both of his hands weren’t readily visible. He was also pulled over for speeding.