GEORGIA COURT FINDS REASONABLE SUSPICION WHEN SUSPECT FLED
by Brian S. Batterton, Attorney
©2016 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On March 9th, 2016, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided the State v. Williams [i], which serves as instructive concerning the law related to flight from a consensual encounter and whether that amounts to reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigative detention. The relevant facts of Williams, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Deputy Wesley Aaron, the only witness at the hearing, testified that on March 9, 2014, he was dispatched to investigate a forced entry and burglary of a metal shop owned by Angie and Travis Wilkerson. Aaron spoke to Travis Wilkerson and learned that several items had been taken from the shop, including "chains and chain bucks." Wilkerson told Aaron that a person had told him that Williams had some chains and bucks that supposedly had been stolen from Wilkerson at a property not far from Wilkerson's shop. On cross examination, Aaron was asked, "So basically, Mr. Wilkerson heard some gossip or some talk that Mr. Williams might have information about this case, and you went out there to talk to him about it?" Aaron replied, "Not exactly at that time. I talked to the source that he got his information from before -" At that point, defense counsel interrupted Aaron and moved on to another point. On redirect examination, the State did not ask any follow-up questions about the source of the information.
Aaron proceeded to Williams's mother's residence to look for Williams, whom Aaron knew. There, Aaron told Williams that Williams was a suspect in the burglary. Aaron admitted that Williams was not in custody or under arrest. Aaron testified that as he asked questions, Williams became "very agitated and fidgety," and as the conversation continued, Williams suddenly "took off running." When Williams fled, Aaron demanded that Williams stop, which he did not, and Aaron then tased Williams and arrested him for misdemeanor obstruction of an officer for hindering the investigation. Aaron explained to Williams his rights under Miranda and transported Williams back to the sheriff's office. There, Aaron reread the Miranda warnings, and Williams agreed to make a statement. [ii]
Williams made incriminating statements and later filed a motion to suppress those statements. He argued that the officer conducted a consensual encounter with him, and citizens are permitted under Georgia law to flee consensual encounters, therefore his obstruction arrest was unlawful and the statement, as a product of his unlawful arrest, should be suppressed.
The trial court agreed and suppressed Williams’ statements, holding that he was allowed to flee a consensual encounter, therefore the arrest was unlawful and subsequent statements must be suppressed. The State appealed this decision to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
At the outset, the court noted that the State did not establish, on the record, the source of the information the Deputy spoke to in order to form a belief that Williams was a suspect. Since this source was not established, the court of appeals had to view that source akin to an anonymous tipster, rather than a concerned citizen. Concerned citizen tips are afforded more credibility than anonymous tips and usually provide sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify a detention, whereas usually tips from anonymous sources, do not. The court stated:
Although a tip provided by an informant of unknown reliability will not ordinarily create a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, if the tip is detailed enough to provide some basis for predicting the future behavior of the suspect, reliability may be established if the details are corroborated by the observations of the police." Brown v. State, 223 Ga. App. 364, 366 (1) (477 SE2d 623) (1996) (citation and punctuation omitted). [iii] [emphasis added]
The court then noted that, in Williams’ case, the tip provided did not predict future behavior, therefore it did not provide sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify his stop.
The court further observed that, at the time Williams fled, he was not being detained by the deputy and he was not in custody or under arrest. Further, the court found that the deputy made no show of authority in an attempt to detain Williams, and that Williams did not submit to any authority offered by the deputy. As such, it was akin to a consensual encounter, from which a person may flee (in Georgia).
However, the court took their analysis of the law further at this point. The court stated:
"[F]light in connection with other circumstances may be sufficient probable cause to uphold a warrantless arrest or search," State v. Smalls, 203 Ga. App. 283, 286 (2) (416 SE2d 531) (1992), and also sufficient to give rise to articulable suspicion that the person fleeing has been engaged in a criminal act sufficient to perform a brief investigatory stop. Ransom v. State, 239 Ga. App. 501, 504 (2) (521 SE2d 430) (1999); see also Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119, 124 (120 SCt 673, 145 LE2d 570) (2000) ("Headlong flight—wherever it occurs—is the consummate act of evasion: It is not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but it is certainly suggestive of such."); Barber v. State, 317 Ga. App. 600, 602 (1) (b) (732 SE2d 125) (2012). Although the suspect's actions could be "ambiguous and susceptible of an innocent explanation," officers are authorized to "detain the individuals to resolve the ambiguity." Wardlaw, 528 U. S. at 125 (citation omitted). [iv] [emphasis added]
The court then stated that “other circumstance” connected to the flight did exist in Williams’ case. Particularly, in addition to the anonymous tip, when the deputy told Williams about the stolen chains and that he was a suspect, Williams then “took off in headlong flight.” The court of appeals stated that the circumstance of this case coupled with the flight, gave the deputy sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain Williams for an investigative detention. The deputy ordered Williams to stop running in an attempt to effect this investigative detention, but Williams refused to stop. The court of appeals then stated that Williams’ refusal to stop then amounted to the crime of obstruction (of a law enforcement officer) under Georgia law, which provide the deputy with probable cause to arrest Williams. Because the arrest was legal, the subsequent valid waiver of Williams’ rights under Miranda was legal and the statements are admissible.
Therefore, the judgment of the trial court was reversed.
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] A15A1858 (Ga. App. Decided March 9, 2016)