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Court calls traffic stop search unconstitutional, reverses pot conviction

A Pocomoke City police officer’s tackling of a motorist stopped for allegedly being on his cellphone while driving invalidates the subsequent discovery of marijuana in the driver’s possession and car, a Maryland appeals court ruled after concluding the officer had no reason to believe the man presented a threat to him.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals overturned Richard Williams’ marijuana possession convictions, saying Sgt.  Rudell Brown’s takedown had violated Williams’ constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Police officers can resort to such aggressive action only when they have “reasonable articulable suspicion” that the person is armed, stated Maryland’s second-highest court.

Such suspicion was absent in this case as Williams had exited the car after being stopped and faced the officer, the appellate court added, citing Brown’s pretrial testimony in which he never said he believed he was in danger. The court discounted the officer’s defense that “normal people don’t jump out of their car” during routine traffic stops and that he did not see what might have been Williams’ clenched hands.

“When a court considers whether an officer had reasonable articulable suspicion to frisk an individual, it must take an objective view of the totality of the circumstances,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

“(R)easonable articulable suspicion can’t be just a hunch, and an officer can’t frisk someone just because he initiated a lawful traffic stop,” Nazarian added. “Under the totality of the circumstances, Sergeant Brown did not have reasonable suspicion to frisk Mr. Williams and we will not ‘rubber stamp’ conduct simply because the officer believed he had a right to engage in it.”

Anne J. Martin, a newly graduated George Washington University law school student who represented Williams on appeal, hailed the appellate court Tuesday for recognizing that “something exceedingly wrong had happened” to her client during a routine traffic stop.

“I’m very pleased that they took issue with Sgt. Brown’s conduct in this case,” said Martin, who was supervised by professor Anne K. Olesen of George Washington’s criminal appeals and post-conviction services clinic. “In this country it cannot be right for that to be occurring.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment Tuesday on the decision or on any plans to seek review by the Court of Appeals.

According to Brown’s pretrial testimony, he pulled Williams over on Oct. 20, 2018, after seeing the motorist with “his cellphone up to his ear.” Williams “quickly” got out of his car rather than waiting for him to approach, Brown said.

The officer testified that he “grabbed” Williams and wrestled him to the ground. Brown said he resorted to pepper spray when Williams continued to resist.

Williams then threw two bags of marijuana under the car, prompting Brown to place him in handcuffs, the officer said. A subsequent search of the car revealed more marijuana and a scale for measuring the drug, Brown added.

After a Worcester County Circuit Court judge upheld the search and seizure of Williams, a jury found him guilty of marijuana possession, possession with intent to distribute and resisting lawful arrest.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed, saying the discovered marijuana should have been deemed inadmissible at trial due to Brown’s unconstitutional search and seizure of Williams. The court added that Williams’ resistance was not illegal because his arrest was not lawful.

Nazarian was joined in the opinion by Judges Andrea M. Leahy and Dan Friedman.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Richard W. Williams v. State of Maryland, No. 858 September Term 2019.

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