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United States v. Williams

March 24, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McVerry, J.


Currently before the Court are the following pretrial motions filed by the Defendant:



On January 3, 2008, the Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the suppression motions at which all parties were represented by counsel who presented and argued the issues skillfully and effectively. Officer Daniel C. Nowak, Officer Mandy Hatfield, Lieutenant Robert Roth and Officer Jeffrey Brock of the City of Pittsburgh Police Department testified on behalf of the government. Christy Somerville and Angela Prude testified on behalf of the Defendant.

At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, the Court ordered that a transcript of the proceedings be prepared and that counsel, if so desired, could file post-hearing brief(s) within twenty (20) days of the filing of the transcript and could file reply briefs, if so desired, ten (10) days thereafter. The post-hearing briefs were timely filed and the matter is now ripe for disposition.

Based on the testimony and evidence presented at the suppression hearing, the applicable law, and having made credibility determinations,*fn1 the Court enters the following Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(d):


On the evening of April 16, 2006, Officer Daniel C. Nowak ("Nowak") was on duty in full uniform, in a marked police vehicle, monitoring traffic.*fn2 He was located in a parking lot near the intersection of Brownsville Road and Agnew Street, in the Carrick area of Pittsburgh. At approximately 7:12 p.m., Nowak observed two vehicles "aggressively" driving down Brownsville Road -- a blue Dodge Caravan, which had two occupants, later determined to be the Defendant, Joseph Douglas Williams ("Williams"), and his girlfriend, Angela Prude,*fn3 and a Buick Skylark, which had one occupant, later determined to be Christy Somerville, the ex-girlfriend and mother of Mr. Williams' child. Nowak testified that the cars were "aggressively driving," which he described as slamming on the brakes, using the horn, and yelling at each other. It appeared to Nowak as though the Skylark was "chasing" the Caravan. In Nowak's opinion, the individuals seemed to be involved in some kind of "road rage" incident.

As the vehicles approached the intersection where Nowak was parked, Williams yelled out the window of the Caravan "she's crazy," referring to the driver of the Skylark which was following the Caravan. Nowak testified that he also heard the driver of the Skylark frantically yelling that "he's dirty,"*fn4 a reference to Williams. Nowak interpreted "dirty" as meaning that Williams was in possession of some type of illegal contraband, such as drugs or a firearm. Both Nowak and Somerville testified that Nowak yelled back to her and asked if Williams had hit her; Somerville did not reply, but rather drove away, again following the Caravan.

Nowak's initial observation of the situation was road rage, however after he heard the drivers yelling at each other, he assessed that this was a domestic incident, which according to Nowak, is more dangerous for police officers due to the high emotional involvement of the participants. Thus, Nowak took Somerville's comment that Williams was "dirty," very seriously considering the totality of the circumstances. Nowak's prior experiences caused him to approach the situation with a heightened sense of awareness.

Nowak pulled his marked vehicle out of the parking lot where he had been monitoring traffic and began to follow the Caravan and Skylark. He observed both vehicles pull into a BP gas station, which was closed for renovations, and Nowak followed them into the BP parking lot. Nowak positioned his police car so as to face the Caravan, in such a way that, according to his testimony, he had a clear view of the passenger side of the Caravan. Nowak was parked about 25-30 feet away from the Caravan. When Nowak pulled into the lot, he observed that Williams had exited the Caravan, and was walking away from the driver's door, around the front of the van towards the passenger side front door.*fn5 Williams then opened the passenger door of the van. Nowak testified that he saw Williams pull a "black object" from his waistband, that Williams then appeared to place the object in the center area of the van between the two front seats, and then Williams covered the black object with a white towel.

Nowak testified that he thought the "black object" could be a firearm from the way Williams "palmed" the object with a cup-shaped grasp, which based on his training and experience, Nowak thought was consistent with the way a firearm is commonly grasped.*fn6 At this point, Nowak immediately called from inside his police vehicle for police backup. He testified that at the point when he saw Williams with the "black object," Williams was no longer free to leave the scene. Nowak testified as follows:

Q: But he [Williams] was not free to leave there, once he pulled in there [the BP station]; is that correct?

A: Yes. He could have. I wasn't stopping him.

Q: At what point was he not free to leave?

A: Whenever he got out of the vehicle, and I seen (sic) that the gun was in - -when he pulled the suspected weapon out there, he was not ...

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