U.S. Supreme Court says traffic stop frisk okay.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled in an Arizona case that redefines when police officers can pat down people they suspect are armed and dangerous.

The high-court ruling reverses a 2007 decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals that a Tucson-area police officer went too far when she frisked the passenger of a car during a routine traffic stop – even though she found a prohibited weapon.

The Arizona Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue was the passenger’s Fourth Amendment protection from unlawful search and seizure. And attorneys on both sides fretted that the court’s decision would either give too much free rein to law-enforcement officers or imperil their safety by limiting when they could frisk.

In the Tucson case, the officer had asked the passenger to get out of the car to talk to her, though he was not the reason the car had been pulled over. Was she still within her right to frisk him?

The court said yes.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the officer “surely was not constitutionally required to give (him) an opportunity to depart the scene after he exited the vehicle without first ensuring that, in doing so, she was not permitting a dangerous person to get behind her.”

Attorney General Terry Goddard called the unanimous ruling “a very important refinement to the search-and-seizure rules: The officer comes first. It’s not an open invitation to stop and search people anywhere you see them,” Goddard said.

According to court records, on April 19, 2002, a gang task force pulled over a car in a known gang neighborhood because the car’s registration was suspended. As one officer questioned the driver and another questioned the front-seat passenger, Oro Valley Officer Maria Trevizo noticed that the backseat passenger, Lemon Montrea Johnson of Eloy, was wearing gang colors and had a police scanner. Johnson told Trevizo that he had recently gotten out of prison.

Trevizo asked Johnson to get out of the car because she wanted to talk to him away from the other occupants. When she patted him down, she felt the gun, and when he began to struggle, she handcuffed him. He was charged and convicted of being an illegal possessor of a weapon.

But the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that since Trevizo was taking Johnson away from the car, it had become a consensual conversation separate from the traffic stop, and therefore, there was no longer reasonable cause to frisk Johnson.

Ginsburg cited a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision on traffic-stop searches when she ruled that all the passengers are detained until the officers allow them to leave. Johnson was not free to leave, she ruled, and Trevizo had a right to frisk him to guarantee her own safety.

“I don’t know how much of a landmark case this is,” said Phoenix defense attorney David Derickson, who is a former Superior Court judge. “Trevizo reasonably thought the man was armed and dangerous, so the frisk is OK. That’s just common sense.”

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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