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Williams v. Kobel

April 16, 1986

RANDOLPH WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
H. WAYNE KOBEL, DONALD BLANKENSHIP, AND PAUL A. O'NEAL, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Peoria Division. No. 84 C 1002 - Robert D. Morgan, Judge.

Author: Coffey

Before COFFEY, EASTERBROOK and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges

COFFEY, Circuit Judge. The plaintiff appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment and award of attorneys' fees to the defendants on his Section 1983 claim that he was arrested without a warrant and without probable cause in violation of his constitutional rights. We affirm.

II.

This litigation arose out of the plaintiff's arrest without a warrant for an arson involving a death in Champaign, Illinois on January 2, 1980. At 2:50 a.m., John Lockard, a police officer with the City of Urbana, Illinois,*fn1 was patrolling in the area of a Derby gas station when he observed the plaintiff standing at the rear of a blue Mercedes-Benz automobile. The officer circled the gas station because it appeared to Officer Lockard that the plaintiff was filling a container or containers in the trunk of the car with gas. After circling the service station, the officer drew close to the Mercedes automobile and noted that the plaintiff had removed the nozzle from the rear trunk area and at this time had inserted the gas nozzle in the car's gas tank. Officer Lockard also noticed that the car had only one Illinois license plate*fn2 and, concerned about the missing plate, called the police dispatcher to check the license registration number. The dispatcher informed Officer Lockard that the license plate identification number belonged to a Mercedes-Benz registered to Randolph Williams, the plaintiff in this action. Sometime later, the dispatcher again contacted Officer Lockard and reported that the College Hall Apartments, a building owned by Williams, the plaintiff, was reported on fire at 3:20 a.m. Officer Lockard immediately recounted his observations of Williams' actions at the gas station a short time before, and after writing a preliminary report at the Urbana Police Department concerning Williams' suspicious actions at the gas station, was directed to return to the Derby gas station, located approximately one mile from the College Hall Apartments. Lockard interviewed the attendant on duty, who remembered the transaction with Williams and informed Lockard that Williams' bill was $23.00. Since the price of the gas was $1.05 per gallon, Lockard calculated that Williams purchased approximately 22 gallons of gasoline, an amount Lockard believed to be greater than the capacity of a 1966 Mercedes' gas tank.*fn3 Lockard reported his findings concerning Williams' purchase of gasoline in excess of a 1966 Mercedes' gallon capacity to Detective Wayne Kobel.

Sometime between 4:00 and 5:30 a.m., the plaintiff was observed at the scene of the fire by a Sergeant Frye, an officer with the Champaign Police Department. Sergeant Frye, who has coordinated and performed investigations and control duties at over 100 fire scenes in his 20 years with the department, was one of the first officers at the fire scene at approximately 3:30 a.m. Sergeant Frye was convinced that the fire was in all probability caused by an arsonist, based upon the extent of the building's involvement in flames, the heat of the fire, the color of the flames and smoke, and an extensive bulge in one of the building's walls (indicating an explosion). At 4:00 a.m. on the same morning, Sergeant Frye was contacted by a Sergeant Neuman, who related Officer Lockard's observation of Williams at the gas station an hour and a half earlier at 2:50 a.m. Sergeant Neuman, who was knowledgeable about the owners of rental and commercial property, informed Sergeant Frye that Williams either owned or had an ownership interest in the burning building and that the building was about to be sold at a foreclosure sale that day. Sergeant Neuman requested Sergeant Frye to be on the lookout for Williams. Sometime between 4:00 and 5:30 a.m., Sergeant Frye observed the plaintiff, Williams, calmly and casually walking around the perimeter of the fire scene. Williams' calmness seemed to Frye to be somewhat unusual because in his prior fire investigations, he observed that owners typically identify themselves, ask for information, express concern about the building, its occupants and their safety as well as the contents of the building, and volunteer any and all types of information about the structure and the inhabitants. Based upon the totality of the circumstances, including but not limited to his belief that the fire had an incendiary origin (based upon the extent of the building's involvement in flames, the heat of the fire, the color of the flames and smoke, and the extensive bulge in one of the building's walls); the report of Williams' actions, including his conduct at the gas station; Williams' ownership of the building; the impending foreclosure sale; and Williams' calmness at the fire scene, Sergeant Frye concluded that he had probable cause to arrest Williams for arson. Before making the actual arrest, Sergeant Frye decided to review the information about Williams and the Mercedes-Benz automobile and ordered Officer Lockard to report to the fire scene.

Officer Lockard arrived at the fire and observed Williams and the same Mercedes automobile he had previously seen at the gas station. At this time Williams was wearing a coat other than the coat he had on at the gas station. Lockard reported to Detective Kobel, a defendant in this action that the Mercedes at the fire scene was the same Mercedes he had seen at the gas station, that Williams was the man he had observed at the gas station, and that Williams had changed his coat since leaving the gasoline service station. Based upon his knowledge of the approximate distance between the Derby gas station and the burning building, Detective Kobel concluded that Williams might very well have driven from the Derby gas station to the College Hall Apartments and had ample time to set the fire between the time of his presence at the gas station and the report of the fire. Detective Kobel, after reviewing and analyzing all the information concerning Williams and the fire, conferred with defendant Lieutenant Paul O'Neal, defendant Officer Donald Blankenship, Sergeant Frye and other officers, concluded that probable cause existed, and arrested Williams at 5:45 a.m.

Later that day, fire department investigators inspected and searched the burned-out building and discovered a body later determined to be a resident of the building believed to have been killed in the conflagration. The investigators also discovered a five-gallon metal can containing a liquid that smelled like gasoline, possibly used to ignite the fire.

Williams was charged with aggravated arson and murder and a preliminary hearing was held on January 7, 1980. After listening to the State's evidence, the judge found that the State had failed to produce sufficient evidence to establish probable cause to bind Williams over to trial for the crimes of aggravated arson and murder:

"The Court simply does not believe that the evidence that has been presented at this particular hearing is sufficient to satisfy the second portion of the People's burden which is to show evidence that the Defendant, not to the exclusion of everyone else in the world and not to a preponderance of the evidence or a reasonable doubt, but that the Defendant committed the offense. The Court believes that the gaps between the evidence are simply too much for the Court to bridge at this particular hearing so the entry is going to be: Witnesses sworn, evidence heard. Finding by the Court that there is insufficient evidence to establish probable cause to conclude that the Defendant committed an offense as charged in the Information."

After the Court dismissed the charges against Williams, he filed a civil suit seeking damages in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, contending that the defendants arrested him without a warrant and without probable cause in violation of his constitutional rights and his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that they had probable cause to arrest Williams on January 2, 1980, and that they had acted in good faith. In support of their motion, the defendants submitted, inter alia, affidavits from Officer Lockard, Frye and Kobel relating the events at the gas station and at the fire scene on January 2.

In his counter-affidavit, Williams responded to Lockard's testimony concerning the gas station in two paragraphs:

"7. At no time on January 2, 1980 did Officer John Lockard or any other police officer see, [sic] me in any gas station in Champaign County, Illinois with a gasoline nozzle in the trunk of my automobile. 8. At no time on January 2, 1980 did I have a gasoline nozzel [sic] in the trunk of my car to fill containers with gasoline."

Williams also filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability in which he asserted that there was "no triable issue of material fact." The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment finding that, "Of the many elements which aggregate to constitute probable cause concerning the arrest for arson for which the plaintiff complains, the only matter which the plaintiff attempted at all to controvert was the John Lockard, an Urbana Police Officer, did not see him putting gasoline into containers in the trunk of his car at 2:50 a.m." The district court judge noted that the plaintiff, Williams, admitted in a stipulation filed with the court that Officer Lockard saw the plaintiff and his car at the Derby gas station shortly before the fire, further noted that the plaintiff stated in his motion for summary judgment that there "is no triable ...


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