Supreme Court Rules Police Must Corroborate Anonymous Allegations Before Conducting a Stop and Frisk

May 31, 2012

Nashville, Tenn. – In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside the 2010 convictions of Guy Alvin Williamson of Tipton County for the felonious possession of a handgun and the unlawful possession of a handgun while under the influence of alcohol.

On May 31, 2009, an anonymous 911 caller reported an “armed party” at the Baxter Motel in Covington. The unidentified caller did not mention any particular illegal activity or otherwise identify or describe a suspect. The police arrived at the scene in less than a minute; one officer drew his weapon, pointing it toward a second floor exterior corridor where Williamson and two other men stood. After frisking one of the individuals and finding nothing, police conducted a “pat down” search of Williamson, which yielded an inoperable .22 pistol. After determining that Williamson had been drinking and had a prior felony conviction, officers charged him on the two felony counts. Later, Williamson was tried and convicted. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the convictions.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Florida v. J.L., the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the anonymous call, absent any verifiable assertion of illegality, did not provide the officers with the requisite degree of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to justify Williamson’s detention. Possession of a firearm is “not necessarily a crime,” and the police, in order to comply with constitutional constraints against unreasonable searches and seizures, must first find circumstances corroborative of anonymous allegations of illegalities before conducting a stop and frisk. Because the U.S. Supreme Court in Florida v. J.L. refused to adopt a “firearm exception” to the longstanding rules governing an investigatory stop, the Tennessee Supreme Court also declined to do so.

To read the State of Tennessee v. Guy Alvin Williamson opinion authored by Justice Gary R. Wade visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/williamsonguyopn_0.pdf.