Search and Seizure
If a police officer has a reasonable basis for believing that a person is involved in criminal activity or is about to be involved in criminal activity, the officer has a right to make an investigative stop of that person. Another name for an investigative stop is a “Terry Stop,” which name is taken from the United States Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio. The officer may make the stop even though he or she does not have probable cause for an arrest. The purpose of the stop is to investigate criminal activity and not to make an arrest.
When an officer makes an investigative stop, he or she has a right to search the person who is stopped. The purpose of this warrantless search is to protect the safety of the officer making the investigative stop. The search must be reasonable and must be based upon the officer’s belief that the person whom he or she is stopping may be in possession of a weapon.
A search of a person in an investigative stop is a limited search and generally consists of a “pat-down” or a frisk of the person’s body. The purpose of the search is not to obtain evidence. Its object is to search for weapons. The factors, which justify the limited search, include bulges in pockets that resemble weapons, fleeing the scene, furtive gestures, nervousness, sudden movements, threats, and intoxication. Although one of these factors may justify a limited search, a combination of the factors may not always justify the limited search. Whether the search is justified depends upon all of the circumstances.
Although the search is generally limited to the outer clothing of a person who is stopped, the search may extend to objects that might contain a weapon, such as a pocket or a purse. The search of a pocket or a purse does not necessarily extend to containers that are found in the pocket or the purse.
The search of a person in an investigative stop may extend to an automobile that the person who is stopped is driving. The officer has a right to conduct a limited search of the passenger compartment of the automobile for weapons or other dangerous instrumentalities. The officer does not have the right to search the trunk of the automobile, however. The search must be based upon the officer’s reasonable belief that the person who has been stopped may be armed and dangerous.
In summary, a warrantless search of a person who is being stopped by a police officer for an investigative stop is a limited search, which is conducted in order to protect the safety of the officer.