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Adams v. Williams

    Brief Fact Summary. Robert Williams (the “Respondent”) was convicted in Connecticut state court for illegal possession of a handgun found during a “stop and frisk” and heroin found during a search incident to this weapons arrest.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Reasonable cause for a stop and frisk can be based on more than the officer’s personal observation, but also on information supplied by another person.

    Facts. A police officer received a tip from an informant that the Respondent who was sitting in a vehicle early in the morning had drugs in his possession. The police officer investigated the informant’s report by first tapping the car window and asking the Respondent to get out of the car. The Respondent rolled down the window and when he did so, the police officer reached in and removed a fully loaded gun from the Respondent’s waist. The gun was not visible from outside the car, but exactly where the informant said it was. A search incident to the arrest was conducted shortly thereafter, and heroin, a second handgun and a machete were found on the Respondent’s person and in the vehicle.
    Respondent was convicted in Connecticut state court for illegal possession of a handgun found during the “stop and frisk” and heroin found during the search incident to this weapons arrest. Respondent filed a habeus corpus petition that was denied by the federal district court and granted by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals concluded that there was an unlawful search and found the state court judgment should be set aside.

    Issue. Whether a stop and frisk has to be based on the officer’s personal observation or if it can be based on information supplied by another person?

    Held. The stop and frisk can be based on information from other people. Once the arresting officer “had found the gun precisely where the informant had predicted, probable cause existed to arrest Williams for unlawful possession of the weapon.” Further, “[u]nder the circumstances surrounding Williams’ possession of the gun seized by [the officer], the arrest on the weapons charge was supported by probable cause, and the search of his person and of the car incident to that arrest was lawful.”
    Respondent’s argument that the officers conduct violated [Terry v. Ohio] was rejected. Terry found that “a brief stop of a suspicious individual, in order to determine his identity or to maintain the status quo momentarily while obtaining more information, may be most reasonable in light of the facts known to the officer at the time.” Additionally, “[s]o long as the officer is entitled to make a forcible stop, and has reason to believe that the suspect is armed and dangerous, he may conduct a weapons search limited in scope to this protective purpose.”
    The majority, in applying [Terry’s] above principle’s, found that the officer’s conduct in response to the informant’s tip was appropriate. The police officer knew the informant personally and had been provided information by him in the past. This is stronger than when the police receive an anonymous telephone tip. Although, “while the Court’s decisions indicate that this informant’s unverified tip may have been insufficient for a narcotics arrest or search warrant, the information carried enough indicia of reliability to justify the officer’s forcible stop of [Respondent].”
    The majority observed that the arresting officer had ample reason to fear for his own safety when he approached the Respondent in a high-crime area early in the morning. Additionally, the Respondent would not get out of his car and instead he rolled down his window making the weapon in his waist an even greater threat. Based on the facts of this case, “the policeman’s action in reaching to the spot where the gun was thought to be hidden constituted a limited intrusion designed to insure his safety, and we conclude that it was reasonable.”

    Dissent. Justice William Brennan (“J. Brennan”) drafted a dissenting opinion relying on Justice Friendly’s opinion in the lower court, and argued that the arresting officer did not show sufficient cause to justify his “forcible stop.”
    Justice [ ] Marshall and Justice [ ]Douglas drafted a dissenting opinion arguing that the majority improperly construed Terry, because Terry was meant to be a “narrowly drawn” exception to the warrant requirement. Additionally, that the court improperly construes the balance Terry sought to strike between a citizen’s right to privacy and the importance of effective law enforcement.

    Discussion. This is an interesting decision, showing how the Supreme Court thinks in certain situations a bright line rule will not cover every situation.


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