494 U.S. 325 (1990).

One-Sentence Takeaway: Police officers may, in effecting an arrest within a home, make a cursory inspection of spaces within the home where a person might be found for the purpose of securing their safety until they can complete the arrest and depart (the protective sweep exception to the Fourth Amendment).

Summary: Defendant was wanted for his participation in a two-man armed robbery of a Godfather’s Pizza restaurant.   The police entered Buie’s home pursuant to a valid arrest warrant and found Defendant in the basement and, while there, the officer briefly searched the remainder of the basement for any other occupants—such as Defendant’s accomplice in the robbery.  During that brief “protective sweep,” the officer found a red jumpsuit similar to the one that one of the robbers was allegedly wearing and, since it was in plain view, seized the jumpsuit.

Defendant sought to exclude admission of the red jumpsuit in evidence on the basis that the additional search that the officer executed violated the Fourth Amendment.  The Maryland trial court and intermediate appellate court upheld the officers’ small additional search on the basis that the officers had reasonable suspicion to believe that there might be other dangerous individuals hiding in the basement with Defendant.  The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed, holding that an officer needs probable cause to justify the kind of “protective sweep” that the officer executed.

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed, upholding the Maryland trial court’s and intermediate appellate court’s decisions that the additional search was proper.  The Court held that a protective sweep is a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.  The Supreme Court defined “protective sweep” as “a quick and limited search of premises, incident to an arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others.” The Court stated that: “[A]s an incident to the arrest the officers could, as a precautionary matter and without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, look in closets and other spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest from which an attack could be immediately launched. Beyond that, however, we hold that there must be articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, would warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene.”

The Court commented that “there is no ready test for determining reasonableness other than by balancing the need to search against the invasion which the search entails.”  It held that such a protective sweep was a minimal—though not insignificant—additional intrusion on the Fourth Amendment rights of the criminal defendant.  At the same time, an arrest within a person’s home puts the officer at a distinct disadvantage, and places him at an even greater risk of someone laying in wait ambushing or harming him.

Thus, balancing the Fourth–Amendment intrusion against the government’s heightened interest in protecting police officers arresting suspected criminals, the Supreme Court found that a “protective sweep” was justified on the basis of reasonable suspicion to believe that there might be another individual on the premises that might be a danger to the officers. Probable cause is not required, nor is a warrant. The Supreme Court limited, however, the scope of such “protective sweeps:” “[It] is … not a full search of the premises, but may extend only to a cursory inspection of those spaces where a person may be found. The sweep lasts no longer than is necessary to dispel the reasonable suspicion of danger and in any event no longer than it takes to complete the arrest and depart the premises.”

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