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Judge should be suspended and fined over traffic stop pushback, hearing panel says

A judicial hearing board has recommended unpaid suspension and a fine for a West Virginia circuit judge accused of pulling rank over and over following a traffic stop.

Judge Carter Williams

Judge Carter Williams of Hardy County, under the recommended punishment, would serve unpaid suspension for at least three months, pay a $5,000 fine and also pay more than $11,000 of the costs to address his case. He would also be censured.

The suspension could extend for up to a year if authorities conclude that Williams violates terms of an agreement about his behavior. The recommendations will go to the state Supreme Court for a final decision.

“This case is a textbook example of a judge’s violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct,” wrote Judge Michael Lorensen, chairman of the West Virginia Judicial Hearing Board.

“On the other hand, setting aside the Respondent’s poor compliance with traffic laws and regulations, his unethical conduct was limited in this case, based on the clear and convincing evidence, to Sunday, July 11, 2021, when he egregiously overreacted to a simple traffic stop over the use of a cellphone, which motorists generally do not carry in their hand to make themselves better drivers, because the traffic officer rejected his excuse for having a cell phone in his hand, and on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 when he had a conversation with a prosecuting attorney in which he continued to air his grievances against the traffic officer, to whom the Respondent apologized in conjunction with the hearing.”

In other words, the judge took a bad day and made it worse and worse.

Scrutiny began July 11, 2021, when Williams went out for ice cream with his family, started to drive home, picked up a cell phone he had dropped, got pulled over by Moorefield Police Officer Deavonta Johnson for having the phone in his hand while driving, berated the patrolman, and called multiple local officials, including the patrolman’s supervisor while the traffic stop was still going on.

Investigators say that in the hours following the traffic stop, Williams called the supervising officer, Lt. Melody Burrows, multiple times, called Moorefield Police Chief Stephen Riggleman and called the town’s former police chief Steve Reckart. Witnesses suggested the judge’s message was that he would look less favorably on cases involving the local police department.

“There is clear and convincing evidence that the Respondent implied he might make rulings in the cases involving the police agency employing the traffic officer that would be influenced by his grievances with being pulled over,” the hearing board concluded this week.

The ethics case was heard over three days last spring by members of the Judicial Hearing Board: three circuit judges, one magistrate, one family court judge, one mental hygiene commissioner, juvenile referee, special commissioner, special master, or former judge or justice, state or federal, and three members of the public.

They concluded that there was not clear evidence of racism against the patrolman, who is Black, or compelling evidence to hold Williams accountable for a separate situation where he walked out of a retailer without paying for his goods. The latter was a case of lost concentration, both Williams and the retailer maintained.

But other aspects of the case, the judicial hearing board concluded, were clearly instances of attempting to use a position of judicial authority for personal reasons. The board noted the judge’s testimony that a medical condition likely affected his behavior and took into account his statements of remorse.

“There is clear and convincing evidence that the Respondent failed to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of  the judiciary, and improperly made threats to use his power as a judge to retaliate for a traffic stop,” the hearing board concluded.

Furthermore, “There is clear and convincing evidence that the Respondent invoked his judicial office in a manner that was less than patient, dignified, and courteous with the traffic officer, the officer’s supervisor, the police chief, the former police chief and the mayor.”

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