Protective Search for Weapons
In Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983), the Supreme Court extended the reach of the Terry v. Ohio stop and frisk, holding that, in the context of a roadside encounter, a police officer may conduct a protective search for weapons not only of an individual, but also of the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle.
In Long, two deputy police officers were on patrol one evening when they noticed a car "traveling erratically and at excessive speed," eventually turning onto a side road and swerving into a ditch. Id. at 1035.
When the deputies approached the car to investigate, the driver and only occupant of the automobile met the officers at the rear of the vehicle, "which was protruding from the ditch onto the road." Id. at 1035-36.
The driver's door was left open. Id. at 1036. The driver did not respond to the initial requests for his license or registration, and according to one of the deputies, "appeared to be under the influence of something." Id. at 1036.
Having produced his license, the driver was asked again for his registration, after which he turned from the officers and walked toward the open driver's door of the vehicle. Id.
Walking behind the driver, the officers observed a large hunting knife on the floorboard of the car. Id. The officers stopped the driver and subjected him to a Terry protective pat down, but recovered no weapons. Id. One of the deputies then proceeded to search the vehicle for other weapons by shining his flashlight into the car without entering the vehicle. Id.
When the officer noticed something protruding from under the front armrest, the officer knelt in the vehicle, lifted the armrest, and discovered an open pouch on the front seat. Id. Upon shining his flash light on the pouch, the officer saw that it contained what appeared to be marijuana. Id. The driver was arrested for possession of marijuana. Id.
In considering whether a police officer may conduct a Terry-type search of the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle during a lawful investigatory stop of the occupant, the Court in Long emphasized a police officer's interest in self-protection and the protection of others. Id. at 1047-52.
The Court observed that "investigative detentions involving suspects in vehicles are especially fraught with danger to police officers," id. at 1047, that "suspects may injure police officers and others by virtue of their access to weapons, even though they may not themselves be armed," id. at 1048, and that "if a suspect is 'dangerous,' he is no less dangerous simply because he is not arrested." Id. at 1050.
In particular, the Court stressed that, when a stop "involves a police investigation 'at close range,'" the police officer "remains particularly vulnerable in part because a full custodial arrest has not been effected, and the officer must make a "quick decision as to how to protect himself and others from possible danger." Id. at 1052.
The Court further opined:
"Our past cases indicate then that protection of police and others can justify protective searches when police have a reasonable belief that the suspect poses a danger, that roadside encounters between police and suspects are especially hazardous, and that danger may arise from the possible presence of weapons in the area surrounding a suspect." Id. at 1049.
The Court held that the police may search the passenger compartment of an automobile, "limited to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden . . . if the police officer possesses a reasonable belief based on 'specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant' the officers in believing that the suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons." Id. at 1049-50 (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 21).
Turning to the facts before it, the Court concluded that the deputies had a reasonable belief that the defendant "posed a danger if he were permitted to reenter his vehicle." Id. at 1050.
The Court explained:
The hour was late and the area rural. The defendant was driving his automobile at excessive speed, and his car swerved into a ditch. The officers had to repeat their questions to the defendant, who appeared to be "under the influence" of some intoxicant. The defendant was not frisked until the officers observed that there was a large knife in the interior of the car into which the defendant was about to reenter. The subsequent search of the car was restricted to those areas to which the defendant would generally have immediate control, and that could contain a weapon. The trial court determined that the leather pouch containing marijuana could have contained a weapon. It is clear that the intrusion was "strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justified its initiation." Id. at 1050-51.