Law is a matter of interpretation. Courts are the venue of interpretation. Law is defined when judicial interpretations circuitously traverse the legal landscape to reach a common conclusion.


The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals did just that in a January 23, 2014 decision. The case, United States v. Williams, concerned a Fourth Amendment vehicle stop. The background facts of the case, as spelled out by the appeals court, are as follows:


In the early morning hours (at around 1:00 a.m.) of June 12, 2009, Leconie Williams, and two companions, were sitting in a vehicle stopped in the “middle of the road” in a residential area in Prince George County, Maryland. A fourth individual was bent over into the driver’s side window of the car.


Prince George County Major Joseph McCann pulled up behind the idle vehicle. The individual leaning inside the vehicle stood up and walked away. McCann observed the stopped vehicle for thirty seconds to a minute. The driver of the vehicle, Leconie Williams, waved for McCann to pass him. McCann decided to remain behind the vehicle at which time Williams began to pull away. McCann activated his police lights and Williams pulled over to the side of the road.


A second Prince George County officer, Sergeant Edward Finn, arrived at the scene. He and McCann then approached Williams’ vehicle, at which time Finn reportedly observed Williams remove something from his pants and drop it onto the floorboard. The officers instructed the vehicle’s three occupants to exit the vehicle after which they conducted a search and found a gun on the floorboard by the driver’s seat. Williams told the officers the gun was his.


Finn cited Williams with violating Maryland’s Transportation Code by leaving a vehicle standing in such a way that it obstructed traffic. The Federal Government ultimately took custody of Williams and indicted him on two firearm charges: 1) felon in possession of a firearm, and 2) possession of a firearm with an altered serial number.


Prior to trial, Williams’ defense counsel moved to suppress the gun on the ground that McCann lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. The district court denied the motion, finding that McCann had “reasonable suspicion” that Williams had violated a provision of the Transportation Code—a section different from the provision cited by Finn. The provision relied upon by the trial court prohibits a person from stopping, parking, or leaving a vehicle standing on a roadway in a business or residential district, attended or unattended, when it is practicable to stop, park or leave the vehicle off the roadway.


The court was forced to find its own violation of the Transportation Code because the violation cited by Finn did not apply to the Williams situation. Relying upon a 2010 Sixth Circuit decision, the Fourth Circuit held that an officer’s “inability to identify the correct code section” does not undermine “valid probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a driver violated a traffic law.” The Sixth Circuit, in United States v. Hughes, specifically held that while an officer “must know or reasonably believe that the driver of the car is doing something that represents a violation of the law,” this does not mean that the officer at the time of the stop must be able to “cite chapter and verse—or the title and section—of a particular statute or municipal code in order to render the stop permissible.”


The question before the Fourth Circuit, then, was whether McCann had probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop Williams’ vehicle because it was stopped “in the middle of the road.” Citing a 2000 en banc precedent by the court, the Fourth Circuit said that “’because an automobile stop is a seizure of a person, the stop must comply with the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that it not be unreasonable under the circumstances … As a result, such a stop must be justified by probable cause or a reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts, of unlawful conduct.’”


The appeals court said this principle applies in most basic traffic offenses. “’When an officer observes a traffic offense—however minor—he has probable cause to stop the driver of the vehicle’ … Moreover, an officer who observes a traffic offense may have probable cause even where he has additional motives for the stop … ‘If an officer has probable cause or a reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, there is no intrusion upon the Fourth Amendment. That is so regardless of the fact that the officer would not have made the stop but for some hunch or inarticulable suspicion of other criminal activity’ …”

Thus, the basic, primary fact in this case is that McCann pulled Williams over because he had stopped his vehicle in the middle of the road. That was a minor traffic violation but sufficient enough to establish probable cause. The Fourth Circuit, however, cautioned:


The fact that McCann did not know the correct traffic violation does not “ … give the government license to ‘look for after-the-fact justifications for stops’ … Nor do we suggest that a police officer’s mistake of law can support probable cause to conduct a stop when the underlying conduct was not, in fact, illegal.”


The court then adopted the language of the Seventh Circuit to make this point: “ … ‘we agree with the majority of circuits to have considered the issue that a police officer’s mistake of law cannot support probable cause to conduct a stop. Probable cause only exists when an officer has a reasonable belief that a law has been broken … An officer cannot have a reasonable belief that a violation of the law occurred when the acts to which an officer points as supporting probable cause are not supported by law.’”


Williams’ conduct was plainly illegal under Maryland law—he stopped his vehicle in the middle of the road. The issue was not whether McCann or Finn identified the correct law but whether stopping “in the middle of the road was a violation of the law. It was, and any violation of law is probable cause.