Terry Pat Down In North Carolina
In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 911 (1968), the United States Supreme Court held that when a police officer observes unusual behavior which leads him to conclude, in light of his experience, that criminal activity may be occurring and that the person may be armed and dangerous, the officer is permitted to conduct a pat-down search to determine whether the person is carrying a weapon. Terry established that "a police officer may effect a brief investigatory seizure of an individual where the officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime may be underway." State v. Barnard, 184 N.C. App. 25, 29, 645 S.E.2d 780, 783 (2007).
The purpose of the officer's frisk or pat-down is for the officer's safety; as such, the pat-down "is limited to the person's outer clothing and to the search for weapons that may be used against the officer." State v. Shearin, 170 N.C. App. 222, 226, 612 S.E.2d 371, 376 (2005).
If during "a limited weapons search, contraband or evidence of a crime is of necessity exposed, the officer is not required by the Fourth Amendment to disregard such contraband or evidence of crime." State v. Streeter, 17 N.C. App. 48, 50, 193 S.E.2d 347, 348 (1972).
"Evidence of contraband, plainly felt during a pat-down or frisk, may . . . be admissible, provided the officer had probable cause to believe that the item was in fact contraband." Shearin, 170 N.C. App. at 226, 612 S.E.2d at 376 (citing Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 375-77, 113 S. Ct. 2130, 124 L. Ed. 2d 334, 346-47 (1993)).
Under the "plain feel" doctrine 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. Minnesota, 508 U.S. 366, 113 S. Ct. 2130, 124 L. Ed. 2d 334.
This Court must consider the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the incriminating nature of the object was immediately apparent and thus, whether probable cause existed to seize it. State v. Briggs, 140 N.C. App. 484, 492, 536 S.E.2d 858, 863 (2000).
A probable cause determination does not require hard and fast certainty by the officer but involves more of a common-sense determination considering evidence as understood by those versed in the field of law enforcement. Id. at 493, 536 S.E.2d at 863.