Question: Can A Patdown Search Following A Traffic Infraction Violated The Fourth Amendment?
Answer: Yes, If There Is No Reasonable Suspicion Of Criminal Activity Or Reasonable Concern For The Officer’s Safety.
In 2011, an officer observed a car operated by Mr. Dixon. The officer had been following the vehicle for 3 or 4 blocks when Dixon made a turn without signaling. The officer decided to stop Dixon and activated his lights. Dixon pulled his vehicle into a parking spot in a residential neighborhood, stopped, and turned off his car. When the Officer exited his vehicle, he noticed that Dixon had gotten out of his car and had started walking towards a residence. The officer approached Dixon and told him, “Hey, you need to get back in your car,” but Dixon continued to walk away. After the officer took out his taser and instructed Dixon for a third time to get back into his car, Dixon stopped and asked, “What did I do? What did I do?” The officer responded, “You just needed to use your turn signal. It’s not that big of a deal. Just have a seat in your car and we’ll go from there.” The officer instructed Dixon to sit in the driver’s seat with the door open. When Dixon handed the officer his license and identification, the officer recognized Dixon’s name. A week or two previously, the officer was approached by an individual, whom he knew from when this person was an inmate at the county jail, who told him that Dixon was selling narcotics. The officer decided to take Dixon out of his car to pat him down. The officer asked Dixon to place his hands on top of the vehicle and began the patdown search and felt a baggie “with a rock in there” in Dixon’s right front pants’ pocket. When the officer grabbed the baggie, Dixon took his hands off the car and the officer decided to handcuff him as he had not yet checked Dixon’s waistband or other pockets. The Officer took Dixon’s left hand and brought it behind Dixon’s back; however, when the officer took hold of Dixon’s left hand, Dixon elbowed him in the nose. Because Dixon attempted to flee, the officers took him to the ground, tased him twice, handcuffed Dixon and found 3 baggies on his person. The State filed an Information, charging Dixon dealing in cocaine as well as other charges. Dixon filed a motion to suppress the cocaine found on his person following the patdown search which the trial court denied.
On appeal, claiming a violation of the 4th Amendment, Dixon contends that the officer’s patdown search was not based on a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot or on a reasonable concern for the officer’s safety. The 4th Amendment protects persons from unreasonable search and seizure, and this protection has been extended to the states through the 14th Amendment. As a general rule, the 4th Amendment prohibits a warrantless search because the overriding function of the 4th Amendment is to protect personal privacy and dignity against unwarranted intrusion by the State. When a search is conducted without a warrant, the State has the burden of proving that an exception to the warrant requirement existed at the time of the search. It is well-settled 4th Amendment jurisprudence that police may, without a warrant or probable cause, briefly detain an individual for investigatory purposes if, based on specific and articulable facts, the officer has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot. Because the standard under Terry is one of objective reasonableness, we are not limited to what the stopping officer testifies to or to evidence of his subjective rationale; rather, we look to the record as a whole to determine what facts were known to the officer and then consider whether a reasonable officer in those circumstances would have been in fear of his safety. The Court recognized in Terry that encounters between the police and citizens are incredibly rich in diversity, that no judicial opinion can comprehend the protean variety of the street encounter, and that we can only judge the facts of the case before us.
Viewed sequentially, the picture emerges that Dixon had already pulled into a parking spot prior to the officer activating his lights and signaling the commencement of the traffic stop. Dixon did not exhibit any threatening conduct or belligerent tone of voice. Cooperating with the officer, who walked Dixon back to his car and stood next to the open driver’s door, Dixon handed him his identification. Only after the officer recognized Dixon’s name as a possible drug dealer, the officer started voicing a belief that he needed to put this guy in handcuffs until he finds out what’s going on. Under the Terry doctrine, a law enforcement officer, for his own protection and safety, may conduct a patdown to find weapons that he reasonably believes or suspects are then in the possession of the person he has stopped. Nothing in Terry can be understood to allow a generalized cursory search for weapons or indeed, any search for anything but weapons. The narrow scope of the Terry exception does not permit a frisk for weapons on less than a reasonable belief or suspicion directed at the person to be frisked. Here, the officer’s actions ostensibly belie the fact that he was concerned for his safety. We reverse the trial court’s decision and remand to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion. 14 N.E.3d 59