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United States v. Williams, No. 12-4374

Decided: January 23, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that the United States District Court for the District of Maryland properly denied Leconie Williams, IV’s (Williams) motion to suppress evidence and did not abuse its discretion by excluding evidence of prior police misconduct allegations against Williams’s arresting officers.  The Fourth Circuit therefore affirmed the decision of the district court.

On June 12, 2009, at about 1:00 AM, police officer Joseph McCann (McCann) saw a vehicle sitting still in the “middle of the road” while driving through a residential area.  He observed the vehicle in this posture for thirty seconds to a minute.  Williams—the driver of the vehicle—gestured for McCann to drive by him; however, McCann stayed behind Williams.  When Williams started to pull away, McCann turned his lights on, and Williams “pulled over to the side of the road.”  Another police officer, Edward Finn (Finn), arrived at the scene.  While McCann and Finn approached Williams’s vehicle, Finn saw Williams take an object out of his pants and drop it on the floorboard, making a “thud.”  McCann and Finn removed the occupants of the vehicle and searched it, discovering a gun on the floorboard near the driver’s seat.  Finn cited Williams for violating a section of the Maryland Code that prohibits leaving a vehicle sitting in such a way that it obstructs traffic.  Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 21-1001(b).

The Government subsequently indicted Williams for, inter alia, being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Williams moved to suppress the gun before trial, asserting that McCann did not have the requisite probable cause to make the traffic stop.  The district court denied Williams’s motion, concluding that McCann had reasonable suspicion that Williams violated another state statutory provision—specifically, § 21-1001(a) of the Transportation Article.  Additionally, the district court granted the Government’s motion to exclude evidence of prior police misconduct allegations against McCann and Finn under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).  At trial, the jury could not reach a verdict on the felon in possession of a firearm charge, and the district court granted a mistrial on that count.  At the next trial—upon Williams’s motion—the district court reaffirmed its decisions with regard to the suppression issue and the exclusion of the evidence of prior police misconduct allegations.  The jury found Williams guilty.  Williams appealed.

On appeal, Williams asserted that the district court committed error by denying his motion to suppress the gun, as McCann did not have the requisite probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop Williams’s vehicle; he argued that McCann incorrectly identified his pre-stop conduct as illegal—as § 21-1001(b) of the Transportation Article does not apply to roads in residential areas.  Williams also argued that the district court erred by excluding the evidence of prior police misconduct allegations.

Quoting the Sixth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Hughes, 606 F.3d 311, the Fourth Circuit asserted that probable cause or reasonable suspicion of traffic law violations is not undermined by “a police officer’s inability to identify the correct code section at the time of a stop.”  The Fourth Circuit found that, while § 21-1001(b) could not serve as the basis for stopping Williams’s vehicle, Williams’s conduct was plainly illegal under a different provision in the Transportation Article—specifically, § 21-1004(a).  The Fourth Circuit also found that “the conduct relied upon by McCann” in making the stop “supported the reasonable suspicion to believe that [Williams] had violated Section 21-1004(a).”  Additionally, the Fourth Circuit found that Williams did not demonstrate clear error on the part of the district court with regard to the factual basis for a violation under § 21-1004(a).  With regard to the district court’s exclusion of the prior police misconduct allegations, the Fourth Circuit noted that, under the four-factor test enumerated in United States v. Queen, 132 F.3d 991, proffered Rule 404(b) evidence must also satisfy Rule 403.  The Fourth Circuit then found that the district court did not act in an “arbitrary” or “irrational” manner by excluding the evidence of prior police misconduct, as this evidence had minimal probative value, could have created admissibility problems, and probably would have been time-consuming and confusing to the jury.

Full Opinion

– Stephen Sutherland