Adams v. Williams
Decided on June 12, 1972; 407 U.S. 143

Man caught with heroin and weapons in his car sues for unlawful search


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (Drugs), 4th Amendment  

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was there probable cause to conduct a lawful search of Williams and his vehicles? Did such search violate the Fourth Amendment?


A. Background: 

Police Sergeant John Connolly, while patrolling a high crime area, was approached by an informant who told him that an individual seated in a nearby vehicle was carrying narcotics and was wearing a gun.

Acting on the tip,
Sergeant Connolly approached the car, knocked on the window, and asked Robert Williams (respondent) to open the vehicle's door. Williams lowered his window and the sergeant reached into the car and found a loaded handgun.  The gun was not visible from outside the car, however it was in William's waistband, precisely where the informant said it would be. Williams was arrested for unlawful possession of the handgun.  A full search of Williams' person and his car, incident to the arrest, was also conducted and officers found heroin and additional weapons.  Williams was convicted of possessing a handgun and narcotics and his convictions were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Connecticut.

Respondent's petition for federal habeas corpus relief was denied by the District Court.  The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court and granted relief to Williams. It held that evidence introduced at Williams' trial had been obtained by an unlawful search of his person and vehicle and thus the state court judgments of conviction should be set aside.  The state petitioned for a writ of certiorari which the US Supreme Court granted. 
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Edward F. Hennessey argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.
Donald A. Browne argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Burt Neuborne and Melvin L. Wulf filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae, urging affirmance.
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Solicitor General Griswold, Assistant Attorney General Petersen and Beatrice Rosenberg for the United States; by Frank S. Hogan, pro se, Michael R. Juviler and Herman Kaufman for the District Attorney of New York County and by Frank G. Carrington, Jr., Alan S. Ganz, Wayne W. Schmidt and Glen R. Murphy for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al.

"While properly investigating the activity of a person who was reported to be carrying narcotics and a concealed weapon and who was sitting alone in a car in a high-crime area at 2:15 in the morning, Sgt. Connolly  had ample reason to fear for his safety.  When Williams rolled down his window, rather than complying with the policeman's request to step out of the car so that his movements could more easily be seen, the revolver allegedly at Williams' waist became an even greater threat. Under these circumstances the policeman's action in reaching to the spot where the gun was thought to be hidden constituted a limited intrusion designed to insure his safety, and we conclude that it was reasonable. The loaded gun seized as a result of this intrusion was therefore admissible at Williams' trial.

Once Sgt. Connolly had found the gun precisely where the informant had predicted, probable cause existed to arrest Williams for unlawful possession of the weapon.  Probable cause to arrest depends 'upon whether, at the moment the arrest was made... the facts and circumstances within [the arresting officers'] knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the [suspect] had committed or was committing an offense.' In the present case the policeman found Williams in possession of a gun in precisely the place predicted by the informant. This tended to corroborate the reliability of the informant's further report of narcotics and, together with the surrounding circumstances, certainly suggested no lawful explanation for possession of the gun. Probable cause does not require the same type of specific evidence of each element of the offense as would be needed to support a conviction. Rather, the court will evaluate generally the circumstances at the time of the arrest to decide if the officer had probable cause for his action...

Under the circumstances surrounding Williams' possession of the gun seized by Sgt. Connolly, the arrest on the weapons charge was supported by probable cause, and the search of his person and of the car incident to that arrest was lawful. The fruits of the search were therefore properly admitted at William's trial, and the Court of Appeals erred in reaching a contrary conclusion.  Reversed."

Held: Judgment of Court of Appeals reversed.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T.  Pro (Wrote disenting opinion, joined Douglas' dissent)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Marshall's dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus curiae urging affirmance of the judgment of the Court of Appeals; the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.