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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 16, 2019



          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge

         Defendant Christopher Williams was stopped in a vehicle with defective tail and tag lights on a private road in an apartment complex when Officer Jonathan Eveler observed him and stopped the vehicle for violations of Maryland Transportation Code (“Transportation Code”). The stop led to a drug arrest. Williams filed a Motion to Suppress, ECF No. 18, arguing that the stop violated the Fourth Amendment.[1] Williams did not violate the Transportation Code sections regarding tail and tag lights, and it was not a reasonable mistake of law to conclude that he did. However, Officer Eveler had a reasonable suspicion that Williams had just or was about to commit a violation of the Transportation Code by driving on a public highway with defective rear and tag lights. Therefore, the stop was justified under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), and Williams' motion to suppress is DENIED.


         On November 1, 2018, at approximately 10:15 p.m., Officer Eveler of the Prince George's County Police Department was patrolling with several other officers on 16th Avenue in Hyattsville, Maryland, within the LaSalle Park apartment complex. Hr'g Tr., 101:5-8, ECF No. 34 (“Tr.”). Undisputed testimony established that 16th Avenue is a private road that loops around the apartment complex and connects to Chillum Road, a public road. Id. at 14:13-22. Officer Eveler drove past a silver Mercedes, with Williams inside as the sole occupant, stopped next to a dumpster in a spot with a yellow “X” through it. Id. at 105:3, 101:23-102:5.[2] The vehicle's lights were on, but its right tail light and tag lights were not functioning. Id. at 111:22-112:21. Officer Eveler drove past the vehicle en route to assist nearby officers, but returned to Williams' vehicle approximately one minute later to initiate a stop. Id. at 102:6-11. At that point, Williams' vehicle began to reverse then drive forward. Id. at 26:7-8, 48:23-49:12. The vehicle's tail and tag lights were working. Id. at 103:17-22. Officer Eveler then activated his emergency lights and stopped the vehicle. Id. at 26:9-10. Officer Eveler testified that during the stop he detected the odor of marijuana and observed what he believed to be crack cocaine. Id. at 31:12, 34:8-11. Williams was arrested and an inventory search was performed of the vehicle. Id. at 38:10-15. During the inventory search, approximately fifteen minutes after the initial stop, the vehicle's right tail light and tag lights again were not working. Id. at 42:25-43:4, 103:24-104:6.


         The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “‘Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure'' under the Fourth Amendment. An automobile stop, therefore, is subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200, 209-10 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809 (1996); citing Whren, 517 U.S. at 810).

         Generally, to be reasonable, a seizure must be “‘based on probable cause' to believe that the individual has committed a crime.” Bailey v. United States, 568 U.S. 186, 192 (2013) (quoting Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 213 (1979)). Probable cause exists when the “facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge . . . are sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.” United States v. Gray, 137 F.3d 765, 769 (4th Cir. 1998) (quoting Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 37 (1979)). “[S]ome latitude” exists, however, for detention without probable cause “where ‘the intrusion on the citizen's privacy was so much less severe' than that involved in a traditional arrest that ‘the opposing interests in crime prevention and detection and in the police officer's safety' could support the seizure as reasonable.” Bailey, 568 U.S. at 193 (quoting Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 697-98 (1981)). These brief detentions are known as “Terry stops, ” because in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968), the Supreme Court held that “a police officer who has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity may conduct a brief investigative stop.” Bailey, 568 U.S. at 193.

         Maryland Transportation Code

         The Government argues that Williams violated two sections of the Transportation Code: § 22-204(a), regarding tail lamps, and § 22-204(f), regarding tag lights.[3] If Williams violated one or both sections, Officer Eveler had probable cause to stop Williams and the motion to suppress should be denied. Williams did not violate these sections of the Transportation Code because he was parked and not on a highway when his tail and tag lights were inoperable. Therefore, these alleged violations do not provide a basis to dismiss the motion to suppress.

         Section 22-204(a) provides in relevant part that “every motor vehicle . . . shall be equipped with at least 2 tail lamps mounted on the rear, which, when lighted as required in § 22-201.1 of this subtitle, shall emit a red light plainly visible from a distance of 1, 000 feet to the rear.” Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 22-204(a). Section 22-204(f) states:

Either a tail lamp or a separate lamp shall be constructed and placed to illuminate, with a white light, the rear registration plate and render it clearly legible from a distance of 50 feet to the rear. Any tail lamp or tail lamps, together with any separate lamp or lamps for illuminating the rear registration plate, shall be wired to be lighted whenever the head lamps or auxiliary driving lamps are lighted.

         Transp. § 22-204(f). Also relevant is Transp. § 22-201.1, which applies to both §§ 22-204(a) and (f). Section 22-204(a) references § 22-201.1 directly. While § 22-204(f) does not explicitly reference § 22-201.1, § 22-202(a) states:

Whenever a requirement is declared in this subtitle as to distance from which certain lamps and devices shall render objects visible or within which the lamps or devices shall be visible, the requirement applies during the times stated in § 22-201.1 of this subtitle in respect to a vehicle without a load when on a straight, level, unlighted highway under normal atmospheric conditions, unless a different time or condition is expressly stated.”

         Transp. § 22-202(a) (emphasis added).[4] Thus, § 22-204(f)'s requirement that tag lights must be visible from a distance of 50 feet to the rear triggers § 22-202(a), which in turn provides that the lighting requirement applies during the times stated in § 22-201.1. Therefore, the lighting requirements for tail lamps and tag lights apply during the times described in § 22-201.1.

         Section 22-201.1 states:

Every vehicle on a highway in this State, at any time when, due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of 1, 000 feet ahead, shall display lighted lamps and illuminating devices as respectively required in this subtitle for different classes of vehicles, subject to exceptions with respect to parked vehicles, and further that stoplights, turn signals, and other signaling devices shall be lighted as prescribed for the use of these devices.

         Transp. § 22-201.1 (emphasis added). Read in conjunction with the previously cited sections of the Transportation Code, the tail light and tag light requirements of §§ 22-204(a) and (f) apply to specific circumstances, one of which is that the vehicle must ...

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