109 F.3d 976 (4th Cir. 1997), 96-4061, United States v. Stanfield

Docket Nº:96-4061.
Citation:109 F.3d 976
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Billy Howard STANFIELD, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:March 31, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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109 F.3d 976 (4th Cir. 1997)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Billy Howard STANFIELD, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 96-4061.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

March 31, 1997

Argued Dec. 2, 1996.

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ARGUED: Stanley Howard Needleman, Baltimore, MD, for Defendant-Appellant. Philip S. Jackson, Assistant United States Attorney, Baltimore, MD, for Plaintiff-Appellee. ON BRIEF: Steven J. Potter, Baltimore, MD, for Defendant-Appellant. Lynne

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  1. Battaglia, United States Attorney, Baltimore, MD, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Before HAMILTON, LUTTIG, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge LUTTIG wrote the opinion, in which Judges HAMILTON and WILLIAMS joined.


LUTTIG, Circuit Judge:

Law enforcement officials literally risk their lives each time they approach occupied vehicles during the course of investigative traffic stops. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly observed, "a significant percentage of murders of police officers occurs when officers are making traffic stops." United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 234 n. 5, 94 S.Ct. 467, 476 n. 5, 38 L.Ed.2d 427 (1973). In recognition of the extraordinary dangers to which officers are exposed during such encounters, the Court has consistently accorded officers wide latitude to protect their safety, authorizing them, inter alia, to routinely order both drivers and passengers to exit their vehicles during such stops and to conduct the equivalent of "frisks" of automobile interiors whenever they reasonably believe their safety might be in jeopardy.

The advent of tinted automobile windows, however, has threatened to bring to naught these essential law enforcement protections. Confronted with the grave risk that tinted windows pose to the safety of law enforcement personnel, we address herein whether the government's substantial interest in officer safety during a lawful traffic stop outweighs the intrusion on the privacy interests of the vehicle's occupants which results when, because of heavily tinted windows that prevent the interior compartment from being viewed, an officer opens a door of the vehicle in order to ensure that the vehicle's driver is unarmed and that there are no other occupants who might threaten his safety during the investigatory stop. We conclude that, perhaps generally, but at least under the circumstances of this case, the substantial government interest in officer safety which exists when law enforcement officers must approach vehicles with heavily tinted windows far outweighs any minimal privacy interest the suspect retains in the otherwise visible interior compartment of his vehicle.


At approximately 9:00 a.m. on the morning of April 29, 1996, three officers from the Baltimore City Police Department--Officers Mackel, Buie and Hamel--were patrolling a high crime area in West Baltimore known for its open narcotics trafficking when they saw a late model, black Nissan Pathfinder with heavily tinted windows illegally parked in the middle of the street, effectively blocking traffic. See Md. Transportation Code Ann. §§ 21-1003(r), 27-101(a) & (b) (Michie 1996). The officers, who were armed and wearing bullet-proof vests over their uniforms because of the dangerousness of their assignment, see United States v. Stanfield, 906 F.Supp. 300, 301 (D.Md.1995), circled the block and, when the driver of the Pathfinder made no effort to move his vehicle to allow a free flow of traffic, parked their unmarked vehicle in front of the Pathfinder. Upon exiting their cruiser, the officers noticed that the Pathfinder's driver, appellant Billy Howard Stanfield, was talking to a man leaning from a second story window, whom the officers recognized as William Staten, a known drug dealer. See id.; J.A. at 151-52 (testimony of Officer Mackel); see also J.A. at 19 (Government's Memorandum of Law in Response to Defendant's Motion to Suppress Evidence).

The officers approached Stanfield's Pathfinder from both the driver and passenger sides, and, as they did so, they noticed that the front driver's side window was down, but that the front passenger side window was raised. See Stanfield, 906 F.Supp. at 301, 303. The tinting on the Pathfinder's windows was so dark that Officer Mackel, who was approaching on the passenger's side, could not see into the vehicle. See id. at 302, 303. Nor could Officers Buie and Hamel see much of the vehicle's interior during their approach from the driver's side. As a consequence of the officers' inability to see inside the vehicle as they approached, Officer Mackel opened the front passenger side door of Stanfield's vehicle in order to determine

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whether Stanfield was armed or had access to weapons and whether he was alone in the Pathfinder. When Officer Mackel opened the passenger door, he saw in plain view, from his vantage point entirely outside the vehicle, see id., a clear plastic bag of cocaine protruding from the mouth of a brown paper bag which was overturned on the back seat of the Pathfinder. See id. & n. 6. 1 The officers arrested Stanfield, searched the Pathfinder, and discovered a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun, numerous empty vials, two contact pagers, and over 200 grams of cocaine. See id. at 302. Stanfield was subsequently charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

Prior to trial, Stanfield moved to suppress the cocaine seized from the back seat of his Pathfinder, contending that the search affected by Officer Mackel's opening of the front passenger door was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment and, therefore, that the cocaine discovered as a consequence of that search must be suppressed. Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied the motion, upholding the search on two independent grounds. First, citing Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 740, 103 S.Ct. 1535, 1542, 75 L.Ed.2d 502 (1983), the district court held that Officer Mackel's opening of the passenger side door was permissible because Stanfield did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the interior of his car. See Stanfield, 906 F.Supp. at 304 n. 9. Second, the district court held that, under Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983), "Officer Mackel was Constitutionally permitted to open the door to determine whether there were other[ ] [occupants in the vehicle] and if any weapons were within Stanfield's immediate reach," determinations which the district court found were otherwise virtually impossible because of the heavy window tinting. Stanfield, 906 F.Supp. at 304; see also id. at 303-04 & n. 11 ("[B]ecause Officer Mackel was unable to see through the heavily tinted windows of the Pathfinder, he had an objectively reasonable belief that Stanfield (or a hidden passenger) was potentially dangerous.").

Following the district court's denial of Stanfield's suppression motion, Stanfield pled guilty to one count of possession, reserving the right to appeal the district court's suppression ruling that is now before us. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


"[T]he 'touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.' " Ohio v. Robinette, --- U.S. ----, ----, 117 S.Ct. 417, 421, 136 L.Ed.2d 347 (1996) (quoting Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 250, 111 S.Ct. 1801, 1803, 114 L.Ed.2d 297 (1991)). And, as the Court explained in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977), reasonableness "depends 'on a balance between the public interest and the individual's right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers.' " Id. at 109, 98 S.Ct. at 332 (quoting United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878, 95 S.Ct. 2574, 2579, 45 L.Ed.2d 607 (1975)). Under this balancing test, the Supreme Court has consistently approved of protective searches of persons, vehicles, and even homes, during routine and other lawful investigatory detentions, in recognition of the paramount interest in officer safety and the extraordinary

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risks to which law enforcement officials are exposed during such detentions.

Thus, for example, in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), the Court sanctioned the now-familiar "pat-down" search, or "frisk," because of the "immediacy" of the government's interest in officer safety, notwithstanding its conclusion that "[e]ven a limited search of the outer clothing for weapons constitutes a severe ... intrusion upon cherished personal security," id. at 24-25, 88 S.Ct. at 1881-82. If an officer possesses a reasonable belief based on "specific and articulable facts" that the suspect is potentially dangerous, id. at 21, 88 S.Ct. at 1880, reasoned the Court, then the officer is justified in undertaking the "limited steps" necessary to "protect himself and others from possible danger." Id. at 28, 88 S.Ct. at 1883.

Fifteen years later, in Long, the Court authorized what are essentially "frisks" of automobile interiors during traffic stops, see Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 332, 110 S.Ct. 1093, 1097, 108 L.Ed.2d 276 (1990), holding that such protective searches are "justified by the principles ... established in Terry." Long, 463 U.S. at 1046, 103 S.Ct. at 3479. Recognizing that all "investigative detentions involving suspects in vehicles are especially fraught with danger to police officers," id. at 1047, 103 S.Ct. at 3480, and accepting without discussion that an area search of a vehicle is less intrusive than the frisk of the person, the Court concluded that "the balancing required by Terry clearly weighs in favor of allowing the police to conduct an area search of the passenger compartment to uncover weapons, as long as they possess [a] reasonable...

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