On June 15, 2022, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Williams v. State[i], which serves as instructive regarding whether felony-stop tactics by police constitute an unlawful, de-facto arrest. 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 a 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 Volkswagen 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.[ii]
Williams was subsequently charged with multiple violations of the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, theft charges, weapons charges, and a drug charge. He filed a motion to suppress and argued that he was unlawfully stopped, searched, and subjected to a de-facto arrest without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied his motion, holding that the officers had reasonable suspicion that he and others in the vehicle were engaged in or about to be engaged in criminal activity. Williams appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Georgia and argued that the officers transformed his stop into a de-facto arrest, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, by the tactics they employed.
The court of appeals framed the issue before the court as follows: Whether 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 gunpoint and immediately placed into handcuffs.[iii]
The court appeals then examined the legal principles relevant to this issue. The court first noted
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).[iv]
Simply put, the court stated that reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is required to detain a person for a brief investigation detention. However, if officers unreasonably detain that person, the investigation detention can transform into a de-facto arrest, which would require probable cause to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court also noted that law enforcement officers are allowed to protect themselves from attack if done in a manner reasonable under the circumstances.
The court then discussed precedent that is relevant to the issue in this case. The court stated
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).[v]
Thus, when dealing with potentially armed and dangerous suspects, officer may employ what are often referred to as felony stop tactics, such as drawing their weapons, forcing suspects to lie on the ground and handcuffing the suspects, without the detention transforming into a de-facto arrest.
The court of appeals then examined the facts of William’s case to determine if the tactics employed by the officers were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment or if they transformed the stop into a de-facto arrest. First, the officers had reasonable suspicion to that William’s and the other occupants of the Volkswagen were associated with the occupants of the Dodge that had fled and crashed. Second, after the suspects in the Dodge fled the crash on foot, they left two AK-47 rifles in the vehicle. Third, the Dodge that fled was traveling in a caravan with two other vehicles and the proximity of the two vehicles suggested the Volkswagen may have picked up occupants of Dodge. Fourth, because the Dodge contained weapons, and because the Dodge and the Volkswagen were likely associated and may have picked up occupants of the Dodge, it was reasonable to suspect that the Volkswagen may also contain weapons.
As such, the court of appeals held
The officers’ act of removing Williams at gunpoint 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.”
Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 364 Ga. App. 340 (2022)
[ii] Id. at 341-342
[iii] Id. at 340-341
[iv] Id. at 343
[v] Id. at 343-344