The 18-year-old senior with a mop of blond hair is described by his dad as a “very laid back kid,” who basically minds his own business. He has a girlfriend, works a part-time job at a local restaurant and plans to attend college next year, possibly at nearby Kennesaw State University.
Now all those plans could get derailed.
His unexpected brush with the law began when a fellow student at Allatoona contacted a campus police officer Sept. 5 with an anonymous tip. The student reported seeing smoke rising from Williams’ car in the student parking lot and said it smelled like marijuana.
The officer informed Assistant Principal Sam Sanford of the accusation.
What happened from there is laid out in an arrest warrant on file with the Cobb magistrate court.
Sanford called Williams into his office.
He got right to the point.
He reminded Williams of the school’s policy that all vehicles parked on school property are subject to searches at any time and asked if Williams remembered that.
“Yeah,” Williams recalls saying in response.
“Well, we’re going to do that,” the assistant principal reportedly said. “Give me your keys.”
The school district’s campus police did not produce a search warrant, Williams said, nor did he give anyone permission to search his vehicle.
“We just walked out there and I watched him search my car,” Williams said.
After searching for about 10 minutes, Sanford, according to the warrant, said he “smelled marijuana” but never found any.
What he did find while sifting through the student’s personal possessions is causing more problems for the Acworth teenager than any marijuana joint ever could.
Sanford opened the center console of the car and found a pocket knife.
He seized it, and turned it over to authorities.
The blade measured 3 inches, long enough to place Williams in violation of Section 16-11-127.1 of the Georgia state penal code: “Carrying weapons within a school safety zone.” Among the forbidden weapons is any knife with a blade longer than 2 inches.
Sanford turned his student over to the officer who supplied the original information about possible pot smoke from the unnamed student informant.
The officer had Williams booked into the Cobb County jail.
He was released more than 24 hours later on a $5,000 bond.
The high school, under Principal Scott Bursmith, has suspended Williams for 10 days and is, according to the family, recommending Williams be expelled. A disciplinary tribunal is pending.
Rescuing his friends
Under closer examination, it was clear that the contraband in question wasn’t an ordinary pocket knife but an EMT rescue knife. Williams had placed it in his car with the knowledge of his parents for a very specific reason.
“We knew he had one,” said the teen’s dad, Andy Williams. “His grandparents have one exactly like it they keep in their glove box. It’s got a hooked edge so you can put that on the seatbelt and run it across the seatbelt to cut it off.”
Andy Williams, a local homebuilder in west Cobb, was dazed when confronted about the charges against his son.
“I look at it as a rescue tool. It just never crossed our minds that this could result in a felony weapons charge,” he said. “I think the intent of the law, they don’t want people coming into the school carrying knives and I totally agree with that, but there’s got to be some kind of common sense to that. It’s just whether someone can admit they’re wrong.”
And why would Andrew need a rescue tool?
“The other thing about this people don’t know is Andrew was in a terrible car accident in February where he had to bust the window out and start dragging his friends out because he thought the car was going to blow up, and literally two weeks after that he went out and bought an EMT rescue knife.
“That’s the part where, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Andy Williams. “It would be one thing if he had the knife on him inside the school or if he pulled it out and threatened someone. He’s never threatened anyone in his life.”
In fact, Andrew is just the opposite kind of a guy.
He fought to free himself from the mangled car and then got three of his four friends out, despite suffering two broken vertebra and a broken rib. The fourth friend, the driver, had to be cut out of the wreckage by EMTs. All survived, though the driver lost a couple of toes.
Fighting car-crash demons
Andrew still has problems dealing with the emotional after-effects of the crash. He doesn’t like to talk about it, and he insists on driving whenever he goes anywhere with friends.
“The car was totaled. It scared him to death, and within two weeks of that wreck he bought this knife and put it in his car, and now he’s getting crucified over it,” said Andy Williams. “I’ve talked with my wife about it and said he may need some counseling to get over it.”
But for now, Andy and his wife, Yvette, are focused on Monday, when they have a preliminary hearing with school officials. Administrators are recommending that Andrew be expelled from school for the rest of the school year, according to Andy Williams.
“Yes, he was planning to go to college. This will totally wreck the rest of his life if he’s convicted. Totally, for having a rescue tool in his console while parked at school?”
If found guilty, the weapons charge carries a fine of up to $10,000 and two to 10 years in prison.
‘Zero tolerance’ vs. common sense
Mazi Mazloom, a criminal defense attorney and president of the Cobb Bar Association, said students give up some of their constitutional rights when they arrive at public schools every morning.
But they don’t check all their rights at the door, or the parking lot.
“No, they still have to have probable cause to search. And last time I checked hearsay is not probable cause,” Mazloom said, referring to the anonymous student who accused Andrew Williams. “That’s hearsay by a third party. An unnamed student is not enough to give them the right to search his vehicle without a warrant.
“As far as the odor of marijuana, if the officer went up to the vehicle and smelled it himself that would give the officer the right to search.
“They can have drug dogs at the school and sniff around everyone’s car, but you can’t just single folks out, especially on hearsay.”
Having a “weapon,” as defined by recent zero-tolerance laws, on school grounds carries even less wiggle room for students.
“On school property it is zero tolerance. That is the problem. It is extreme, but unfortunately, yes, that’s the law,” Mazloom said. “There’s no exception for parents, so I would say that parents are also subject to those zero-tolerance laws.”
Bracing for backlash
Randy Scamihorn, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Education and the representative whose district includes Allatoona High School on Dallas Acworth Highway, said he would try to learn all the facts of the case at the appropriate time. In the meantime, he was bracing for a public backlash.
“I’m going to take the brunt of it, but it’s the state law that is at the heart of the matter,” Scamihorn said. “I’m unaware of the details of this case. But, speaking generally, we want to make sure our parents and students are treated fairly and with respect.”
Cobb School District spokesman Doug Goodwin would not comment on the case, saying the district was bound by confidentiality laws and could not even confirm whether Andrew Williams was a student enrolled at Allatoona High School.
As for Andrew, he is trying not to let the incident get him down, but he realizes the seriousness of what happened.
“It already kind of is ruining my plans. I’m just waiting on Monday for my hearing to find out if they’re going to expel me or not. If that goes well, then I hope it doesn’t ruin my future. But if it doesn’t go well, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
His dad says he can even accept an expulsion, if it comes to that. But having his son tagged as a violent criminal is another matter.
“I’m just flabbergasted. It just blows me away,” he said. “I know the state has a zero tolerance law as far as what they consider weapons and evidently that goes to kids’ cars in the parking lot.”