508 U.S. 366 (1993), 91-2019, Minnesota v. Dickerson

Docket Nº:No. 91-2019
Citation:508 U.S. 366, 113 S.Ct. 2130, 124 L.Ed.2d 334, 61 U.S.L.W. 4544
Party Name:Minnesota v. Dickerson
Case Date:June 07, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 366

508 U.S. 366 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 2130, 124 L.Ed.2d 334, 61 U.S.L.W. 4544




No. 91-2019

United States Supreme Court

June 7, 1993

Argued March 3, 1993



Based upon respondent's seemingly evasive actions when approached by police officers and the fact that he had just left a building known for cocaine traffic, the officers decided to investigate further and ordered respondent to submit to a patdown search. The search revealed no weapons, but the officer conducting it testified that he felt a small lump in respondent's jacket pocket, believed it to be a lump of crack cocaine upon examining it with his fingers, and then reached into the pocket and retrieved a small bag of cocaine. The state trial court denied respondent's motion to suppress the cocaine, and he was found guilty of possession of a controlled substance. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed. In affirming, the State Supreme Court held that both the stop and the frisk of respondent were valid under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, but found the seizure of the cocaine to be unconstitutional. Refusing to enlarge the "plain view" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, the court appeared to adopt a categorical rule barring the seizure of any contraband detected by an officer through the sense of touch during a patdown search. The court further noted that, even if it recognized such a "plain feel" exception, the search in this case would not qualify because it went far beyond what is permissible under Terry.


1. The police may seize nonthreatening contraband detected through the sense of touch during a protective patdown search of the sort permitted by Terry, so long as the search stays within the bounds marked by Terry. Pp. 372-377.

(a) Terry permits a brief stop of a person whose suspicious conduct leads an officer to conclude, in light of his experience, that criminal activity may be afoot, and a patdown search of the person for weapons when the officer is justified in believing that the person may be armed and presently dangerous. This protective search -- permitted without a warrant and on the basis of reasonable suspicion less than probable cause -- is not meant to discover evidence of crime, but must be strictly limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons which might be used to harm the officer or others. If the protective search goes beyond what is necessary to determine if the suspect is armed, it

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is no longer valid under Terry, and its fruits will be suppressed. Sibron v. New York, 392 U.S. 40, 65-66. Pp. 372-373.

(b) In Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1050, the seizure of contraband other than weapons during a lawful Terry search was justified by reference to the Court's cases under the "plain view" doctrine. That doctrine -- which permits police to seize an object without a warrant if they are lawfully in a position to view it, if its incriminating character is immediately apparent, and if they have a lawful right of access to it -- has an obvious application by analogy to cases in which an officer discovers contraband through the sense of touch during an otherwise lawful search. Thus, if an 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. Cf., e.g., Illinois v. Andreas, 463 U.S. 765, 771. If the object is contraband, its warrantless seizure would be justified by the realization that resort to a neutral magistrate under such circumstances would be impracticable, and would do little to promote the Fourth Amendment's objectives. Cf., e.g., Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 326-327. Pp. 374-377.

2. Application of the foregoing principles to the facts of this case demonstrates that the officer who conducted the search was not acting within the lawful bounds marked by Terry at the time he gained probable cause to believe that the lump in respondent's jacket was contraband. Under the State Supreme Court's interpretation of the record, the officer never thought that the lump was a weapon, but did not immediately recognize it as cocaine. Rather, he determined that it was contraband only after he squeezed, slid, and otherwise manipulated the pocket's contents. While Terry entitled him to place his hands on respondent's jacket and to feel the lump in the pocket, his continued exploration of the pocket after he concluded that it contained no weapon was unrelated to the sole justification for the search under Terry. Because this further search was constitutionally invalid, the seizure of the cocaine that followed is likewise unconstitutional. Pp. 377-379.

481 N.W.2d 840 (Minn.1992) affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts III and IV, in which STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 379. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BLACKMUN and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 383.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we consider whether the Fourth Amendment permits the seizure of contraband detected through a police officer's sense of touch during a protective patdown search.


On the evening of November 9, 1989, two Minneapolis police officers were patrolling an area on the city's north side in a marked squad car. At about 8:15 p.m., one of the officers observed respondent leaving a 12-unit apartment building on Morgan Avenue North. The officer, having previously responded to complaints of drug sales in the building's hallways, and having executed several search warrants on the premises, considered the building to be a notorious "crack house." According to testimony credited by the trial court, respondent began walking toward the police but, upon spotting

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the squad car and making eye contact with one of the officers, abruptly halted and began walking in the opposite direction. His suspicion aroused, this officer watched as respondent turned and entered an alley on the other side of the apartment building. Based upon respondent's seemingly evasive actions and the fact that he had just left a building known for cocaine traffic, the officers decided to stop respondent and investigate further.

The officers pulled their squad car into the alley and ordered respondent to stop and submit to a patdown search. The search revealed no weapons, but the officer conducting the search did take an interest in a small lump in respondent's nylon jacket. The officer later testified:

[A]s I pat-searched the front of his body, I felt a lump, a small lump, in the front pocket. I examined it with my fingers and it slid and it felt to be a lump of crack cocaine in cellophane.

Tr. 9 (Feb. 20, 1990). The officer then reached into respondent's pocket and retrieved a small plastic bag containing one fifth of one gram of crack cocaine. [113 S.Ct. 2134] Respondent was arrested and charged in Hennepin County District Court with possession of a controlled substance. Before trial, respondent moved to suppress the cocaine. The trial court first concluded that the officers were justified under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), in stopping respondent to investigate whether he might be engaged in criminal activity. The court further found that the officers were justified in frisking respondent to ensure that he was not carrying a weapon. Finally, analogizing to the "plain view" doctrine, under which officers may make a warrantless seizure of contraband found in plain view during a lawful search for other items, the trial court ruled that the officers' seizure of the cocaine did not violate the Fourth Amendment:

To this Court, there is no distinction as to which sensory perception the officer uses to conclude that the material

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is contraband. An experienced officer may rely upon his sense of smell in DWI stops or in recognizing the smell of burning marijuana in an automobile. The sound of a shotgun being racked would clearly support certain reactions by an officer. The sense of touch, grounded in experience and training, is as reliable as perceptions drawn from other senses. "Plain feel," therefore, is no different than plain view, and will equally support the seizure here.

App. to Pet. for Cert. C 5. His suppression motion having failed, respondent proceeded to trial and was found guilty.

On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed. The court agreed with the trial court that the investigative stop and protective patdown search of respondent were lawful under Terry because the officers had a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that respondent was engaged in criminal behavior and that he might be armed and dangerous. The court concluded, however, that the officers had overstepped the bounds allowed by Terry in seizing the cocaine. In doing so, the Court of Appeals "decline[d] to adopt the plain feel exception" to the warrant requirement. 469 N.W.2d 462, 466 (1991).

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed. Like the Court of Appeals, the State Supreme Court held that both the stop and the...

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