Michigan v. Long, 82-256

Decision Date06 July 1983
Docket NumberNo. 82-256,82-256
PartiesMICHIGAN, Petitioner v. David Kerk LONG
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Two police officers, patrolling in a rural area at night, observed a car traveling erratically and at excessive speed. When the car swerved into a ditch, the officers stopped to investigate and were met by respondent, the only occupant of the car, at the rear of the car. Respondent, who "appeared to be under the influence of something," did not respond to initial requests to produce his license and registration, and when he began walking toward the open door of the car, apparently to obtain the registration, the officers followed him and saw a hunting knife on the floorboard of the driver's side of the car. The officers then stopped respondent and subjected him to a patdown search, which revealed no weapons. One of the officers shined his flashlight into the car, saw something protruding from under the armrest on the front seat, and upon lifting the armrest saw an open pouch that contained what appeared to be marihuana. Respondent was then arrested for possession of marihuana. A further search of the car's interior revealed no more contraband, but the officers decided to impound the vehicle and more marihuana was found in the trunk. The Michigan state trial court denied respondent's motion to suppress the marihuana taken from both the car's interior and its trunk, and he was convicted of possession of marihuana. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the search of the passenger compartment was valid as a protective search under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889, and that the search of the trunk was valid as an inventory search under South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 96 S.Ct. 3092, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000. However, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed, holding that Terry did not justify the passenger compartment search, and that the marihuana found in the trunk was the "fruit" of the illegal search of the car's interior.

Held:

1. This Court does not lack jurisdiction to decide the case on the asserted ground that the decision below rests on an adequate and independent state ground. Because of respect for the independence of state courts and the need to avoid rendering advisory opinions, this Court, i determining whether state court references to state law constitute adequate and independent state grounds, will no longer look beyond the opinion under review, or require state courts to reconsider cases to clarify the grounds of their decisions. Accordingly, when a state court decision fairly appears to rest primarily on federal law, or to be interwoven with federal law, and when the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion, this Court will accept as the most reasonable explanation that the state court decided the case the way it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so. If the state court decision indicates clearly and expressly that it is alternatively based on bona fide separate, adequate, and independent state grounds, this Court will not undertake to review the decision. In this case, apart from two citations to the State Constitution, the court below relied exclusively on its understanding of Terry and other federal cases. Even if it is accepted that the Michigan Constitution has been interpreted to provide independent protection for certain rights also secured under the Fourth Amendment, it fairly appears that the Michigan Supreme Court rested its decision primarily on federal law. Pp. 1037-1044.

2. The protective search of the passenger compartment of respondent's car was reasonable under the principles articulated in Terry and other decisions of this Court. Although Terry involved the stop and subsequent patdown search for weapons of a person suspected of criminal activity, it did not restrict the preventive search to the person of the detained suspect. Protection of police and others can justify protective searches when police have a reasonable belief that the suspect poses a danger. Roadside encounters between police and suspects are especially hazardous, and danger may arise from the possible presence of weapons in the area surrounding a suspect. Thus, the search of the passenger compartment of an automobile, limited to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden, is permissible 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 officer to believe that the suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons. If, while conducting a legitimate Terry search of an automobile's interior, the officer discovers contraband other than weapons, he cannot be required to ignore the contraband, and the Fourth Amendment does not require its suppression in such circumstances. The circumstances of this case justified the officers in their reasonable belief that respondent posed a danger if he were permitted to reenter his vehicle. Nor did they act unreasonably in taking preventive measures to ensure that there were no other weapons within respondent's immediate grasp before permitting him to reenter his automobile. The fact that respondent was under the officers' control during the investigative stop does not render unreasonable their belief that he could injury them. Pp. 1045-1052.

3. Because the Michigan Supreme Court suppressed the marihuana taken from the trunk as a fruit of what it erroneously held was an illegal search of the car's interior, the case is remanded to enable it to determine whether the trunk search was permissible under Opperman, supra, or other decisions of this Court. P. 1053.

413 Mich. 461, 320 N.W.2d 866 (1982), reversed and remanded.

Louis J. Caruso, Lansing, Mich., for petitioner.

David A. Strauss, Washington, D.C., for the U.S. as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

James H. Geary, Kalamazoo, Mich., for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), we upheld the validity of a protective search for weapons in the absence of probable cause to arrest because it is unreasonable to deny a police officer the right "to neutralize the threat of physical harm," id., at 24, 88 S.Ct., at 1881, when he possesses an articulable suspicion that an individual is armed and dangerous. We did not, however, expressly address whether such a protective search for weapons could extend to an area beyond the person in the absence of probable cause to arrest. In the present case, respondent David Long was convicted for possession of marijuana found by police in the passenger compartment and trunk of the automobile that he was driving. The police searched the passenger compartment because they had reason to believe that the vehicle contained weapons potentially dangerous to the officers. We hold that the protective search of the passenger compartment was reasonable under the principles articulated in Terry and other decisions of this Court. We also examine Long's argument that the decision below rests upon an adequate and independent state ground, and we decide in favor of our jurisdiction.

I

Deputies Howell and Lewis were on patrol in a rural area one evening when, shortly after midnight, they observed a car traveling erratically and at excessive speed.1 The officers observed the car turning down a side road, where it swerved off into a shallow ditch. The officers stopped to investigate. Long, the only occupant of the automobile, met the deputies at the rear of the car, which was protruding from the ditch onto the road. The door on the driver's side of the vehicle was left open.

Deputy Howell requested Long to produce his operator's license, but he did not respond. After the request was repeated, Long produced his license. Long again failed to respond when Howell requested him to produce the vehicle registration. After another repeated request, Long, whom Howell thought "appeared to be under the influence of something," 413 Mich. 461, 469, 320 N.W.2d 866, 868 (1982), turned from the officers and began walking toward the open door of the vehicle. The officers followed Long and both observed a large hunting knife on the floorboard of the driver's side of the car. The officers then stopped Long's progress and subjected him to a Terry protective pat-down, which revealed no weapons.

Long and Deputy Lewis then stood by the rear of the vehicle while Deputy Howell shined his flashlight into the interior of the vehicle, but did not actually enter it. The purpose of Howell's action was "to search for other weapons." Id., 413 Mich. at 469, 320 N.W.2d, at 868. The officer noticed that something was protruding from under the armrest on the front seat. He knelt in the vehicle and lifted the armrest. He saw an open pouch on the front seat, and upon flashing his light on the pouch, determined that it contained what appeared to be marijuana. After Deputy Howell showed the pouch and its contents to Deputy Lewis, Long was arrested for possession of marijuana. A further search of the interior of the vehicle, including the glovebox, revealed neither more contraband nor the vehicle registration. The officers decided to impound the vehicle. Deputy Howell opened the trunk, which did not have a lock, and discovered inside it approximately 75 pounds of marijuana.

The Barry County Circuit Court denied Long's motion to suppress the marijuana taken from both the interior of the car and its trunk. He was subsequently convicted of possession of marijuana. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Long's conviction, holding that the search of the passenger compartment was valid as a protective search under Terry, supra, and that the search of the trunk was valid as an inventory search under South Dakota v. Opperman...

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