The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits police officers from performing unreasonable searches and seizures on citizens. Whether an individual is being charged with drug possession or weapons charges, if police officers perform an unreasonable search under the circumstances, the violation of a suspect’s constitutional rights may lead to a reversal of a conviction.
The recent United States Court of Appeals case of United States v. Williams demonstrates such an unreasonable search.
An anonymous 911 call
Late at night, an anonymous woman called 911, reporting that approximately 25 people were loitering in a parking lot outside of a bar in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, with “guns out.” She did not otherwise report any threatening behavior.
Police officers arrived within a few minutes, but found only approximately 10 individuals who were not acting in a disruptive manner. One officer on the scene testified that he was not even sure this was the group who had been reported.
As officers approached, the group began to disperse, with all of the individuals avoiding eye contact. However, for reasons that were not clear from the evidence, the defendant was singled out by one officer and was told to display his hands, although his behavior was not distinct from any of the other individuals.
When the officer attempted to search his waistband, the defendant tried to run, but was taken to the ground by officers, struck by knees and shocked with a taser. A pat-down search recovered a handgun, a few ecstasy pills and some cash.
The defendant was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to a 70-month sentence. The defendant appealed, arguing that the evidence of the gun should have been suppressed, due to the unconstitutional pat-down search of the defendant.
Was the “frisk” constitutional?
The United States Court of Appeals found that the police officers’ initial stop of the group of individuals was lawful. The combination of the anonymous 911 call and the fact that the stop happened at night at a bar known as a high-crime area supported a finding that the officer had a reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant.
However, in contrast to the “stop,” a frisk must be analyzed separately from the initial stop, applying a slightly different standard because frisks are a serious intrusion on the sanctity of a person. After the stop, the officer needed some suspicion that the subject was armed and dangerous to perform the frisk.
Neither the behavior of the group nor the defendant’s own personal behavior supported a reasonable suspicion that he was armed and dangerous, since most people are likely to act nervous and avoid eye contact when approached by police officers. Even in high-crime areas, police officers must have a reasonable, individualized suspicion before a frisk for weapons can be conducted. Due to the change in alleged circumstances from the time of the 911 call to when the police arrived, the officers had almost no reason to believe the individuals still present were armed and dangerous or that criminal charges were in order. Thus, the evidence of the gun would be suppressed and the defendant’s conviction was vacated.
Protect your rights and freedom
If you are charged with a crime, you may be facing possible jail time, fines and other penalties. In such a situation, it is important you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can defend your constitutional rights and help you fight the charges against you.