New Case Strengthens Protections of Fourth Amendment

A new Maryland case has put limits on how and when officers can constitutionally frisk (pat down) individuals at a potential crime scene. The case is important in determining whether evidence obtained by officers at a crime scene are admissible in a trial, and is a victory for the rights of the accused.

Frisk of Individual is Challenged
The situation began when police observed the defendant sitting in a stationary car that had a broken tail light. He was not the driver, but was in the back seat. Police reported that he seemed nervous, and although the driver stated he was waiting there to pick someone up, police did not believe him.

The driver consented to the police searching the vehicle. In doing so they also searched the defendant himself, and found a handgun on him.

“Terry Search” Standards

But the right to search a vehicle is different than the right to physically frisk a person, sometimes called a “Terry search.” Officers normally cannot just pat down or frisk people in the absence of a warrant, or at least probable cause. But the law does allow police some leeway to frisk individuals for weapons when they have what is known as reasonable, articulable suspicion. This allowance is made to allow officers to ensure their safety when at a potential crime scene.

They can also frisk if they observe a crime, or there is some indication a crime is occurring that they can see. In past cases, this has included situations where an officer observes a bulge which could be a weapon in a Defendant’s pocket, or where a weapon is actually in the officer’s plain view.

Use of Handgun Challenged

Alleging that none of these factors were present here, and that the frisk was unconstitutional, the defendant moved the Court to suppress the evidence of the gun that was found on him. The state argued that the frisk was allowed because the car was in a high crime area, where multiple thefts had occurred, and police noticed how “nervous” the defendant appeared.

The Court noted that rather than just citing generalized concerns, like being in a high crime area, officers needed to cite facts specific to the actual situation to justify a search.
Here, there was nothing to provide any reasonable suspicion that the defendant was armed or dangerous. The mere fact that the defendant seemed “nervous” did not provide the requisite suspicion needed to justify a frisk. Neither did a “departmental policy” of frisking individuals pass constitutional muster.

While the defendant could have been ordered to get out of the car to allow for a safer search, there was no specific indication he was or could present any danger to the officers. Thus, officers did not have the suspicion needed to justify the search of the defendant’s person.

If you have been arrested or are being charged with a crime, make sure that your constitutional rights are protected according to the most recent state of the law. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case.