On June 15, 2022, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Williams v. State[i], in which the court considered whether the defendant was temporarily detained or subjected to a de facto arrest when officers removed him from a vehicle at gunpoint and handcuffed during a felony stop. The relevant facts of Williams are as follows:
In January 2019, at approximately 1:34 a.m., an officer from the Douglasville Police Department was patrolling on I-20 East when he received a stolen tag notification from his vehicle’s automated license plate reader. The alert came as three vehicles, seemingly traveling closely together, passed the officer while traveling in the center lane. The three vehicles, in order from back to front, were a red Kia Forte, a black Dodge Journey, and blue Volkswagen Passat. As the officer approached the vehicles in an attempt to determine which one displayed the stolen tag, all three slowed from 70 to 51 miles per hour and switched from the middle lane into the far left lane. That observation, in addition to the fact that all three vehicles displayed Alabama tags, led the officer to believe, based on his training and experience, that they were traveling together in tandem.
The officer determined that the stolen license plate was on the Dodge and after verifying its status through Georgia Crime Information Center, he learned that the tag actually belonged to a Nissan. As he prepared to initiate a stop of that vehicle, he requested backup from dispatch. The officer also broadcasted the tag numbers and a description of all three vehicles, and explained his observations that they were likely traveling together.
When backup arrived, the officer dropped behind the Dodge and attempted to initiate a traffic stop. The other two vehicles continued unimpeded. The Dodge turned on its turn signal and began to pull into the emergency lane as though it was going to pull over, but then accelerated to 100 miles per hour and fled. A high-speed chase ensued. The officer continued to keep dispatch apprised of the location of the Dodge throughout the chase. After several unsuccessful PIT maneuvers, the vehicle crashed and its three occupants fled on foot. Two AK-47 assault rifles could be seen in plain view through the windows of the Dodge.
Additional law enforcement officers were dispatched to set up a perimeter to look for the fleeing suspects. The responding officers were made aware that weapons had been found in the abandoned vehicle. Eventually, the driver of the Dodge was apprehended, but its two passengers remained at large.
While in the process of setting up a perimeter to search for the fleeing passengers, a second officer from the Douglasville Police Department observed a Volkswagon Passat with Alabama tags that matched the description of that which had been driving in tandem with the Dodge. The vehicle was driving slowly through a subdivision near the area of the Dodge’s crash site, and the officer suspected that it may have been looking to aid the fleeing passengers. The officer called in the license plate of the Volkswagen in order to confirm that it was, in fact, one of the original three vehicles. Aware that the Volkswagen contained “multiple occupants” but unsure of how many, and aware that firearms had been discovered in the abandoned Dodge, the officer followed the vehicle but did not immediately initiate a stop. Instead, she requested backup.
The Volkswagen was ultimately stopped by several deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. The occupants, including Williams, were ordered out of the vehicle at gunpoint and placed into handcuffs while law enforcement officers sought to identify them and investigate their possible connection to the occupants of the Dodge. Marijuana, firearms, and large amounts of cash were discovered inside the Volkswagen.
Williams was subsequently arrested and charged with several violations of the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, several counts of theft by receiving stolen property, several counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and a single count of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.[ii]
Williams filed a motion to suppress the evidence and argued that he was subjected to a de facto arrest without probable and, as such, the evidence was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion and Williams appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
The issue on appeal was
[W]hether appellant Quintez D. Williams, a passenger in a vehicle from which physical evidence was seized following a stop, was temporarily detained or de facto arrested without lawful authority when he was removed from the vehicle at gun point and immediately placed into handcuffs.[iii]
The court of appeals first discussed the legal principles involved in Williams’ case. Specifically, the court stated
While probable cause is required for a warrantless arrest, a person may be lawfully seized for purposes of a brief investigation when only a reasonable and articulable suspicion exists. What is intended to be an investigatory detention can be transformed into a de facto arrest by the means of detention employed. However, a law enforcement officer who detains a person for purposes of investigation should not be denied the opportunity to protect himself from attack by a hostile suspect and may lawfully detain the person in a manner reasonably necessary to protect his personal safety and to maintain the status quo.(Citation and punctuation omitted.) Gray v. State, 296 Ga. App. 878, 879-880 (1) (676 SE2d 36) (2009).
We have previously held that in sufficiently dangerous circumstances, law enforcement officers may effect and maintain an investigatory detention by drawing weapons, forcing individuals to the ground, and/or handcuffing suspects without transforming the detention into a de facto arrest. See generally Holsey v. State, 271 Ga. 856, 861 (6) (524 SE2d 473) (1999), superceded by statute on other grounds as recognized in Sealey v. State, 277 Ga. 617, 620 (8) (593 SE2d 335) (2004) (holding that appellant removed at gunpoint and forced to lie prone was reasonably detained, not arrested, because of the danger inherent in approaching an uncooperative person suspected of committing a violent crime); Gray, 296 Ga. App. at 879-880 (1) (holding that appellant was not placed under de facto arrest when he was removed from the couch and handcuffed during his investigatory detention for valid officer safety reasons).[iv]
The court then examined the facts of Williams’ case in light of the above legal principles. The court first noted that the officers had a “collective knowledge” that the occupants of the Volkswagen were travelling with the occupants of the Dodge, which had a stolen license plate. Second, the occupants of the Dodge led police on a dangerous, high-speed pursuit, crashed, fled and escaped on foot, leaving two AK-47 rifles in the Dodge as they fled. Third, officers believed that the Volkswagen, whose tag matched that of the vehicle with the Dodge, was either attempting to pick up the occupants of the Dodge or had already picked up the occupants of the Dodge, as the Volkswagen contained multiple occupants, which included Williams. Fourth, it was reasonable to believe the Volkswagen contained weapons given the totality of the circumstances.
In light of the above facts, the court of appeals then held
The officers’ act of removing Williams at gun point and placing him in handcuffs, when considering the totality of the circumstances, was reasonable. See Gray, 296 Ga. App. at 880 (1) (“An officer must make quick decisions as to how to protect himself and others from possible danger, and the officer is not required to risk his life in order to effectuate an investigatory detention.”) (citation and punctuation omitted); see also Stringer v. State, 285 Ga. 842, 845 (2) (684 SE2d 590) (2009), disapproved on other grounds by State v. Sims, 296 Ga. 465 (769 SE2d 62) (2015); Holsey, 271 Ga. at 861-862 (6); Johnson v. State, 324 Ga. App. 508, 510 n.1 (751 SE2d 141) (2013).[v]
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] A22A0255 (Ga. App. Decided June 15, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 1
[iv] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)