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Maryland Court of Special Appeals Holds that Tackling a Suspect after a Traffic Stop Resulted in an Illegal Arrest and Ruled that Evidence Should be Suppressed

Richard W. Williams v. State of Maryland, No. 858, September Term, 2019

View arguments here:

From Case Headnotes:
State violated criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights when police officer performed a take down without testifying that defendant was armed and dangerous, at risk of flight, or a threat to the officer’s safety.

Defendant was placed under arrest when he was tackled, wrestled to the ground, told to put his hands behind his back, and pepper sprayed. The arrest was not supported by probable cause because there was no evidence to warrant a prudent person in believing that the defendant had committed or was committing a criminal offense at the time of the arrest, and evidence gathered after the unlawful arrest should have been suppressed as fruits of the poisonous tree.

Evidence was insufficient to convict criminal defendant of resisting arrest where arrest was unlawful.

The legal system and criminal defense lawyers are a major check on police abuse of powers.  The day after the nation was dealing with the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died during an arrest for a minor criminal offense, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals condemned a police officer’s physical take-down of a Pocomoke City man suspected of a minor traffic violation. Williams v. State, No. 858, Sept. Term 2019 (May 29, 2020).  While the timing of the unreported ruling is obviously coincidental, it serves as a reminder that the limits on the State’s use of force during a routine arrest have been, and will continue to be, a significant issue for law enforcement, the communities they serve, and ultimately, the courts.

Richard Williams was pulled over by a police officer in Pocomoke City, Maryland, for talking on his cell phone while driving, which is a non incarcerable traffic ticket.  After Mr. Williams stopped his car, both he and Sergeant Brown got out of their vehicles. Williams quickly exited his vehicle with his back to the officer, clutching something in his hands.  Sergeant Brown approached Mr. Williams quickly from behind and took him down to the ground, pepper sprayed him and handcuffed him.  While Mr. Williams was handcuffed, Sergeant Brown searched him and discovered three baggies of marijuana totaling less than 10 grams (which is a civil citation and not a criminal amount) as well as $443 in cash on and about Mr. Williams.  Sergeant Brown then searched his car and found a scale and a criminal amount of marijuana as well as baggies that were alleged to have been for packaging Marijuana.
Williams was charged and convicted of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of marijuana, resisting arrest, and driving on a suspended license.
The Court reversed the convictions for possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of marijuana, and resisting arrest; holding that Mr. Williams’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated by an illegal arrest and search and that the evidence could not support his conviction for resisting arrest.
Before trial, Williams sought to suppress the items found in the car.  His main argument was that the unjustified use of force by the officer transformed a routine traffic stop into a warrantless arrest without probable cause, making the evidence found in the car the tainted fruits of an illegal arrest, and therefore inadmissable.  The circuit court disagreed with Williams and let the evidence in; the Court of Special Appeals did not and over ruled the circuit court.

The State’s first argument was that the take-down was a reasonable effort to engage in what is known as a Terry frisk for officer safety under  the Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio,  392 U.S. 1 (1968).

The Terry case carved out a limited exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement that permits an officer to conduct a pat-down for weapons if there is “a reasonable articulable suspicion” that the suspect is “armed and dangerous.”  The Court of Special Appeals rejected this argument, noting that although the officer testified that Williams got out of the car quickly with his back turned and something in his hands, the officer never explained to the trial court why he thought this might indicate that Williams was engaged in criminal activity or posed a threat to officer safety.  The Terry exception, therefore, was unavailable on these facts.

The State’s second argument was that the arrest gave rise to the possibility that that car would be towed and later inventoried so that the discovery of the contraband was inevitable.  This argument was also rejected.  Seizure of a vehicle and a subsequent inventory search cannot be done without a lawful arrest.   For a warrantless arrest to be lawful, the appeals court explained, the officer must have sufficient knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information to justify a belief that the suspect had committed or was committing a crime. All that the officer had in this case was a traffic stop and a suspect’s quick exit with his back turned while clutching an unknown object.  The Court concluded that “On that record, no objectively reasonable police officer would have had cause to believe that Mr. Williams had committed or was committing a crime.”  Since this was an unlawful arrest, everything that followed, including the discovery of the contraband or its alleged “inevitable” discovery during a possible inventory of the vehicle was, or would have been, unlawful.  The Court of special Appeals therefore ruled that the evidence seized as a consequence of the unlawful arrest should have been suppressed at trial, requiring reversal of the drug-related offenses.

Since the crime of resisting arrest also requires proof that the attempted arrest was itself lawful, Williams’ conviction for that offense was also reversed.  His conviction for driving on a suspended license was affirmed without discussion, presumably because the traffic stop itself was lawful, and the discovery of the suspended license was indeed inevitable.

The Court addressed a number of other issues in its opinion, including when the discovery of a non-criminal amount of marijuana on a suspect’s person might justify the search of a car.  The Court unfortunately did not address the quick and violent nature of this police-civilian encounter other than saying that it was an arrest without probable cause.  If the problems that we are seeing in the news today about policing practices are to be stopped, perhaps the Courts need to use stronger words admonishing this unconstitutional behavior.