440 Mass. 62 (August 27, 2003)

An officer need not conduct a pat-frisk of a container prior to a search for weapons, as long as the container is the sort where such a patfrisk would not either confirm or dispel the presence of a weapon.

During a lawful arrest of the defendant, police took custody of the defendant's backpack. In a search for weapons, they opened the backpack and found two bricks of cocaine. On appeal, the defendant concedes that the police were entitled to take his backpack and perform a patfrisk of his person. He claims, however that the police should have first performed a patfrisk of the exterior of the backpack prior to opening it.

The Court found on the facts of this case a patfrisk was not necessary. In a case of first impression, the Court declined to impose a rule requiring an automatic patfrisk of all containers prior to a search for weapons. Instead, the Court held that the size and nature of the container would dictate whether a patfrisk is necessary prior to an interior search. In cases where a patfrisk of the container would eliminate the officer's suspicion that a weapon might be inside, a patfrisk should be conducted. In cases such as this one, however, the "particular features of the container, readily observable by the police, may make it apparent that nothing short of opening the container will suffice to address the officer's reasonable suspicions." Since "a patfrisk would not suffice to dispel suspicion and avert the need for a search, no patfrisk need be performed." The patfrisk should be limited in scope to what is minimally necessary to discover the presence or confirm the absence of a weapon.