Tinted Window Traffic Stops: Maryland Law

Maryland Court of Appeals Case Summary: November 5, 2007

Constitutional Criminal Procedure
Case Brief: Basis for pretextual stop

BOTTOM LINE: Circuit court properly granted defendant's suppression motion where police executed a pretextual stop of defendant's vehicle due to alleged window tinting violation, but were unable to articulate reasonable suspicion for the stop.

CASE: State v. Williams, CA No. 39, September Term, 2007 (filed Oct. 19, 2007) (Judges Bell, Raker, Greene & WILNER (retired, specially assigned)) (Judges Harrell, Battaglia & Cathell (retired, specially assigned), dissenting).

FACTS: On May 8, 2006, Harford County Deputy Sheriff Wood, advised to be on the lookout for a certain vehicle believed to be transporting drugs, observed the vehicle and followed it a short distance, when he observed what appeared to be a darkly tinted rear window.

Upon concluding that the tinted window constituted an infraction, Wood stopped the vehicle, which was driven by Arvel Williams. Shortly thereafter, a K-9 unit arrived, alerted to the presence of narcotics, and cocaine and marijuana was recovered. Williams was placed under arrest.

Four days later, Williams drove the vehicle to the State Police Automotive Safety Enforcement Division, which found that the window was legal and would pass Maryland inspection laws. Following a hearing, the circuit court granted Williams' motion to suppress.

The State appealed that decision to the Court of Special Appeals, but the Court of Appeals granted certiorari prior to proceedings in the intermediate appellate court, affirming the circuit court's ruling, albeit on different grounds.

LAW: The stop at issue in the instant case is commonly referred to as a Whren stop. It was clear, and not really disputed, that Deputy Wood used what he believed to be a tinting violation as a pretext to stop the car in order to allow a backup K-9 officer time to arrive and scan the car for suspected CDS.

In Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), the Supreme Court found no Constitutional impediment to such a pretextual stop, provided the officer has sufficient cause to believe that the traffic violation upon which the stop is, in fact, based has occurred.

Citing Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653-54 (1979), the Whren Court acknowledged that even the temporary detention of an individual during the stop of an automobile constitutes a "seizure" of the person for Fourth Amendment purposes and that an automobile stop is therefore subject to the requirement that it not be "unreasonable" under the circumstances.

The Court also confirmed that "[a]s a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred." Whren, 517 U.S. at 809-10.

When such probable cause exists, any ulterior motive of the officer is largely irrelevant: "[s]ubjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable cause Fourth Amendment analysis." Id. at 813. See also Davenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 153 (2004).

In the instant case, the suppression court found that, in order for the Whren pretextual stop to be permissible, the police must have more than probable cause, that they had "to be right on or lose [the] evidence as a result." That standard was wholly inconsistent with Whren, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, and common sense.

Although it was clear that the standard employed by the suppression court, of absolute correctness, was not a valid one, there is some imprecision as to what will justify a traffic stop. Courts, including the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, have mentioned both the Terry v. Ohio reasonable articulable suspicion standard and the probable cause standard in the context of traffic stops.

The prevailing view among courts that have resolved that issue, and that adopted in the instant case, is that the appropriate minimum standard is reasonable articulable suspicion.

In Prouse, the Court considered whether a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment by randomly stopping a car for the sole purpose of checking the operator's driver's license and the vehicle registration "where there is neither probable cause to believe nor reasonable suspicion that the car is being driven contrary to the laws governing the operation of motor vehicles..." Prouse, 440 U.S. at 650.

Throughout the opinion, the Prouse Court mentioned both standards, although it seemed to accept the lesser reasonable articulable suspicion standard as the applicable minimum.

The Prouse Court observed at one point that the permissibility of a law enforcement technique is judged by balancing its intrusion on Fourth Amendment rights against legitimate governmental interests and that, when so implemented, "the reasonableness standard usually requires, at a minimum, that the facts upon which an intrusion is based be capable of measurement against 'an objective standard,' whether this be probable cause or a less stringent test." Id. at 654.

The Court noted that reasonable suspicion was the test applicable to roving patrol stops by Border Patrol agents. Still later, it concluded that "[w]here there is not probable cause to believe that a driver is violating any one of the multitude of applicable traffic and equipment regulations or other articulable basis amounting to reasonable suspicion that the driver is unlicensed or his vehicle unregistered," there was no legitimate basis upon which the officer could decide whether stopping a particular driver for a spot check would be more productive than stopping any other driver. Id. at 661.

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