In Williams v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a conviction for drug trafficking after determining the officer exceeded the scope of a proper pat down search.
Williams was a passenger in a car that a Henry County police officer stopped for following too closely. Although he only issued a warning citation, the officer eventually received permission from the driver to search the car. The officer then asked Williams to step out of the vehicle. When Williams attempted to move away from the car, the officer blocked him and asked if he could pat him down. Williams consented and the officer felt a bulge in one of his pants pockets. When the officer inquired what was in the pocket, Williams told him it was “just candy.” Williams turned away from the car again and the officer began to close the door of the car and block Williams’ path. The officer then asked a second time to see what was in the pocket and Williams removed a rolled-up paper bag, again replying it only contained candy. When Williams would not agree to open the package, the officer proceeded to unroll the bag and discovered cocaine.
On appeal, Williams claimed that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress as the officer’s pat down and subsequent discovery of the cocaine exceeded the scope of a constitutionally permissible pat down. The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the conviction.
The Court emphasized that such pat downs should only be conducted to ensure the safety of the officer and other individuals at the scene. An officer should not conduct a pat down to obtain evidence to be admitted against a defendant at trial. Thus, courts have found that pat downs must be restricted to an individual’s outer clothing. An officer can only go beyond this threshold and reach into or under a suspect’s clothing in two limited circumstances: if the officer feels something he reasonably believes is a weapon or if the officer feels something immediately identifiable as contraband.
Here, the arresting officer admitted that he had “no idea” what the bulge in Williams’ pocket was. The officer had no reason to suspect that Williams possessed a weapon or posed a threat to anyone at the scene. Additionally, the officer never indicated that he suspected the item was contraband when he first felt the bulge. As the officer was not permitted to probe further than Williams’ outer clothing under these circumstances, his request that Williams take the item out of his pocket exceeded the constitutional scope of the pat down.
Additionally, the Court found that Williams did not voluntarily consent to the officer’s search. Under the circumstances, a reasonable person would not have felt free to disregard the officer’s instructions. Williams told the officer several times that he did not want to reveal what was in his pocket. The Court found that a reasonable person in Williams’ situation would have felt that he had no other choice but to comply with the officer’s request to produce the bag.
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