On a day when the nation was convulsing in 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, an issue for law enforcement, the communities they serve, and ultimately, the courts.

Williams was stopped after a police sergeant saw him driving while talking on a cell phone, a non-incarcerable traffic offense.  Williams quickly exited his vehicle with his back to the officer, clutching something in his hands.  The officer immediately grabbed Williams from behind and wrestled him to the ground.  During the scuffle, Williams was pepper-sprayed and eventually handcuffed, but not before he tossed two small baggies of marijuana under the car.  Taken together, the marijanua in those bags, and a third one later found in Williams’ pocket, totaled less than 10 grams.  It was not, therefore, a crime to possess it.  A subsequent on-scene search of the vehicle, however, did result in the recovery of a criminal amount of marijuana, a scale, and baggies for packaging.  Williams was charged and convicted of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of marijuana, resisting arrest, and driving on a suspended license.   

Before trial, Williams sought suppression of the contraband, arguing primarily that the unjustified use of force 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.  The circuit court disagreed; the Court of Special Appeals did not.

The State first sought to justify the take-down as a reasonable effort to engage in a Terry frisk for officer safety, 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.” Id. at 12–13 (quoting Norman v. State, 452 Md. 373, 387 (2017).   The Court 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. Slip Op. at 14–16.  The Terry exception, therefore, was unavailable on these facts. 

The State’s second argument—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—was also rejected as it was necessarily predicated on 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.  Id. at 18. All that the officer had here was a traffic stop and a suspect’s quick exit with his back turned while clutching an unknown object.  “On that record, no objectively reasonable police officer would have had cause to believe that Mr. Williams had committed or was committing a crime.” Id. at 18–19.  As the arrest was unlawful, everything that followed, including the discovery of the contraband or its theoretically “inevitable” discovery during an inventory of the vehicle was, or would have been, unlawful.  The evidence seized as a consequence of the unlawful arrest should have been suppressed at trial, requiring reversal of the drug-related offenses.  

As 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, and a peculiar issue regarding jury selection that the Court permitted, but deemed “risky and ill-advised.” Id. at 24.  The Court did not, however, address or even attempt to characterize the immediate and violent nature of this police-civilian encounter, except to say that it constituted an arrest.  In that sense, the Court might have missed an opportunity to contribute to the ongoing national dialogue that predates the 2018 events it had under review.