Brief Fact Summary. A police officer patted down a suspect and discovered a small amount of crack cocaine in his jacket.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. “If a police officer lawfully pats down a suspect’s outer clothing and feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity immediately apparent, there has been no invasion of the suspect’s privacy beyond that already authorized by the officer’s search for weapons; if the object is contraband, its warrantless seizure would be justified by the same practical considerations that inhere in the plain-view context.”
The Respondent moved to suppress the cocaine, but the trial court concluded the officers undertook a justifiable [Terry] stop when they stopped the Respondent. Also, that the officers were justified in patting down the Respondent to check if he was armed. Finally, pursuant to the “plain-view” doctrine, the seizure of the contraband did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed. The court disagreed that the officers were allowed to seize the cocaine. The court would not adopt the “plain feel” exception. The Minnesota State Supreme Court affirmed and like the Court of Appeals found the seizure to be unconstitutional. Also like the Court of Appeals, the court refused to extend the “plain-view” doctrine to encompass a “sense of touch”. Further, that the pat search went beyond what was permissible under [Terry].
Issue. “[W]hether the Fourth Amendment permits the seizure of contraband detected through a police officer’s sense of touch during a protective patdown search[?]”
Held. The majority first discussed the parameters of [Terry] and observed “[i]f the protective search goes beyond what is necessary to determine if the suspect is armed, it is no longer valid under [Terry] and its fruits will be suppressed.”
An officer may seize non-threatening contraband detected during a protective patdown search of the sort permitted by [Terry], if they stay within the bounds of [Terry].
“The rationale of the plain-view doctrine is that, if contraband is left in open view and is observed by a police officer from a lawful vantage point, there has been no invasion of a legitimate expectation of privacy, and thus no ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment – or at least no search independent of the initial intrusion that gave the officers their vantage point. The warrantless seizure of contraband that presents itself in this manner is deemed justified by the realization that resort to a neutral magistrate under such circumstances would often be impracticable, and would do little to promote the objectives of the Fourth Amendment. The same can be said of tactile discoveries of contraband. If a police officer lawfully pats down a suspect’s outer clothing and feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity immediately apparent, there has been no invasion of the suspect’s privacy beyond that already authorized by the officer’s search for weapons; if the
object is contraband, its warrantless seizure would be justified by the same practical considerations that inhere in the plain-view context.”
In rejecting the Minnesota Supreme Court’s holding, the majority observed “[f]irst, [Terry] itself demonstrates that the sense of touch is capable of revealing the nature of an object with sufficient reliability to support a seizure. The very premise of [Terry], after all, is that officers will be able to detect the presence of weapons through the sense of touch, and Terry upheld precisely such a seizure. Even if it were true that the sense of touch is generally less reliable than the sense of sight, that only suggests that officers will less often be able to justify seizures of unseen contraband. Regardless of whether the officer detects the contraband by sight or by touch, however, the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that the officer have probable cause to believe that the item is contraband before seizing it ensures against excessively speculative seizures. The court’s second concern – that touch is more intrusive into privacy than is sight – is inapposite in light of the fact th
at the intrusion the court fears has already been authorized by the lawful search for weapons. The seizure of an item whose identity is already known occasions no further invasion of privacy. Accordingly, the suspect’s privacy interests are not advanced by a categorical rule barring the seizure of contraband plainly detected through the sense of touch.”
“[T]he dispositive question before this Court is whether the officer who conducted the search was acting within the lawful bounds marked by [Terry] at the time he gained probable cause to believe that the lump in respondent’s jacket was contraband.” “Under the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of the record before it, it is clear that the court was correct in holding that the police officer in this case overstepped the bounds of the ‘strictly circumscribed’ search for weapons allowed under Terry.” Further, “[w]here, as here, ‘an officer who is executing a valid search for one item seizes a different item,’ this Court rightly ‘has been sensitive to the danger . . . that officers will enlarge a specific authorization, furnished by a warrant or an exigency, into the equivalent of a general warrant to rummage and seize at will.’ Here, the officer’s continued exploration of respondent’s pocket after having concluded that it contained no weapon was unrelated to ‘[t]he sole justifica
tion of the search [under Terry:] . . . the protection of the police officer and others nearby.’ It therefore amounted to the sort of evidentiary search that Terry expressly refused to authorize, and that we have condemned in subsequent cases.”
“Although the officer was lawfully in a position to feel the lump in respondent’s pocket, because [Terry] entitled him to place his hands upon respondent’s jacket, the court below determined that the incriminating character of the object was not immediately apparent to him. Rather, the officer determined that the item was contraband only after conducting a further search, one not authorized by [Terry] or by any other exception to the warrant requirement. Because this further search of respondent’s pocket was constitutionally invalid, the seizure of the cocaine that followed is likewise unconstitutional.”
Discussion. This case should be read alongside [Terry] to see the court’s progression of this line of cases.