Minnesota v. Dickerson

508 U.S. 366 (1993).

One-Sentence Takeaway: During a Terry v. Ohio stop and pat down of suspect’s outer clothing, if the police officer feels an object whose identity is not immediately apparent, the officer may not conduct further investigation to ascertain the identify of that object without running afoul the Fourth Amendment.

Summary: Two police officers observed Dickerson leaving a house that they knew to be a crack house.  Dickerson  initially walked towards the officers, but, after making eye contact, he quickly changed direction and walked into an alley.  The officers drove their cruiser to the alley and ordered Dickerson to stop to further investigate.

Justice Byron White authored the unanimous opinion affirming the ruling of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

One of the officers performed the Terry v. Ohio frisk of Dickerson’s outer clothing.  He did not find any weapons, but felt a small lump in Dickerson’s jacket pocket.  The officer further squeezed and manipulated the object and later testified that he thought it felt like a lump of crack cocaine in cellophane.  The officer then reached into Dickerson’s pocket and retrieved a small plastic bag of crack cocaine.

The trial court admitted the cocaine as evidence over Dickerson’s objection, but the Minnesota court of appeals reversed and excluded that evidence and the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed.

The question facing the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the officers overstepped the bounds of the stop of frisk searches permitted under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

The Court ruled that the search and seizure of evidence overstepped the bounds of Terry and, therefore, the search and seizure of the crack cocaine violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Court reasoned that a protective search under Terry — permitted without a warrant and on the basis of reasonable suspicious less than probable cause — must be strictly limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons which might be used to harm the officer or others nearby.  If the protective search goes beyond what is necessary to determine if the suspect is armed, it is no longer valid and justified under Terry.

The Court noted that, “it is clear that the [Minnesota appellate] court was correct in holding that the police officer in this case overstepped the bounds of the ‘strictly circumscribed’ search for weapons . . . Where, 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.  Here the officer’s continued exploration of respondent’s pocket after having concluded that it contained no weapon was unrelated to the sole justification of the search.  It therefore amounted to the sort of evidentiary search that Terry expressly refused to authorize, and that we have condemned.”

Related entries