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United States v. Williams

June 3, 2009

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
GAMAL WILLIAMS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

HON. JEROME B. SIMANDLE

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

A vehicle operated by Defendant Gamal Williams was stopped by three City of Camden police officers for what the officers allege was careless driving. The officers arrested Defendant after discovering a firearm in the vehicle, which the officers contend was in plain view on the center console as Williams drove the vehicle, and which Defendant testified was kept out of sight under the driver's seat. Mr. Williams was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 2.

Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion to suppress evidence of the firearm, which he contends was discovered as the result of an unlawful search [Docket Item 15]. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant Defendant's motion.

II. BACKGROUND

A. The Traffic Stop

The facts that give rise to the motion presently under consideration are as follows.*fn1 In the early morning hours of February 24, 2008, Officers John J. Galiazzi and Daniel Diaz and Sergeant Jim Wilson, all of the City of Camden Police Department, were on patrol in the area of Ninth Street and Atlantic Avenue in Camden, New Jersey.*fn2 At approximately 3:50 a.m., the officers were informed that a 911 call had been placed in which the caller reported hearing gunshots in the officers' vicinity, and the officers circled the area, found no witnesses, and "cleared" the report as unfounded. After this, the officers parked their vehicles*fn3 on Atlantic Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets and stood outside their cars, talking.

Officers Galiazzi and Diaz and Defendant Williams present competing accounts of what happened next. According to Officer Galiazzi, as the officers were standing outside their vehicles, a black Chevrolet Impala later determined to have been owned and operated by Defendant drove along Atlantic Avenue, stopped approximately one block away from the officers, drove in reverse in order to make a "K" turn in the middle of the street, spun its tires to the point of creating smoke, and proceeded in the direction opposite to that from which it had come. Officer Diaz testified to a similar series of events, stating that he heard the screeching of Defendant's tires and saw Defendant's vehicle stop in the middle of Atlantic Avenue, turn, and proceed in the opposite direction.*fn4 Defendant testified that he did not commit any such motor vehicle violations prior to being pulled over. The officers, believing that Defendant had committed a traffic infraction, got in their vehicles, followed Defendant's vehicle, activated their flashing lights, and pulled Defendant's car over at approximately 4:00 a.m.

B. The Seizure of the Firearm and Defendant's Arrest

Officer Diaz and Sergeant Wilson approached on the driver's side of Defendant's vehicle, while Officer Galiazzi approached on the passenger's side. The vehicle's windows were down, and the officers could see Defendant sitting in the driver's seat and Defendant's friend, Lee Troy Smith, sitting in the passenger's seat. The witnesses offered competing accounts of what transpired next, and their testimony is reviewed below.

1. Officer Galiazzi's Testimony According to Officer

Galiazzi's testimony, upon approaching Defendant's vehicle at the driver's side, Officer Diaz instructed Defendant to produce his driver's license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance, and Officer Galiazzi, on the passenger's side, asked Mr. Williams and Mr. Smith if they knew anything about the gunshots that had been reported earlier that evening. Officer Galiazzi testified that as Defendant lifted the top portion of the center console between the two seats in order to access the documents Officer Diaz had requested, Officer Galiazzi, standing outside the car, shined the light from his flashlight into the car. Officer Galiazzi testified that in an depressed space situated forward of the gear-shift -- that is, between the gear-shift and the bottom of the dashboard*fn5 -- he observed a handgun in plain view, at which point he drew his firearm, alerted his fellow officers to the presence of the gun, and ordered Mr. Williams and Mr. Smith to exit the vehicle.

In Officer Galiazzi's telling of the events, the officers pulled Mr. Williams and Mr. Smith from the vehicle, patted them down, handcuffed them, and put them in the back of separate police vehicles; Mr. Williams was placed in Officer Galiazzi's vehicle and Mr. Smith was placed in Officer Diaz's vehicle. Officer Galiazzi retrieved the firearm from Defendant's vehicle, removed the bullet from the chamber for safety purposes, and brought the firearm to the "duty bag" in his police vehicle. According to Officer Galiazzi, when he returned to his police vehicle (where Defendant was detained) with the gun, Defendant, unprompted, blurted out that the gun was his and that Mr. Smith did not know that it was in the vehicle. Officer Galiazzi testified that the officers checked for any outstanding warrants for Mr. Smith, determined that none existed, and released Mr. Smith at the scene.

Officer Galiazzi testified that he drove Defendant from the scene of the arrest to the police station in his police vehicle with no other officer in the vehicle. According to Officer Galiazzi, Defendant, without being questioned, stated during the drive that he thought that he had placed the gun in the trunk of his car. Officer Galiazzi testified that he did not respond in any way to Defendant's allegedly unprompted remark, although he recalled that at some point while transporting Defendant to the police station, he asked Defendant whether he had heard the ...


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