United States Supreme Court (January 26, 2009)

During a routine traffic stop, police officers are justified in conducting a pat down search of a passenger they think might be armed, even if they have no suspicion that the passenger has committed a crime.

While patrolling near a Tucson neighborhood associated with the Crips gang, Arizona's gang task force police officers stopped an automobile for a motor vehicle infraction. At the time of the stop, the officers had no reason to suspect the car's occupants of criminal activity. Officer Trevizo spoke with the defendant, the back-seat passenger, whose behavior and clothing caused the officer to question him. After learning that the defendant was from a town with a Crips gang and that he had been in prison, the officer asked him to get out of the car to question him. Because the officer suspected that the defendant was armed, she patted him down for safety. During the pat down, the officer felt the butt of a gun. The defendant was charged with possession of a weapon.

The trial court denied the defendant's motion to suppress the evidence, concluding that the stop was lawful, and that the officer had cause to suspect the defendant was armed and dangerous. The defendant was convicted. The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed. While recognizing that the defendant was lawfully seized, the court found that, prior to the pat down, the detention had evolved into a consensual conversation. The court concluded that the officer had no right to pat frisk the defendant, even if she had reason to suspect he was armed and dangerous. The Arizona Supreme Court denied review. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's decision, ruling the lawful stop of the car was a seizure under the 4th amendment. The Court did not find that the gang affiliation questioning was a consensual conversation. A stop and frisk may be conducted without violating an individual's amendment rights if two conditions are met: 1) the stop must be lawful; and 2) the officer reasonably suspects the person is armed and dangerous. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). The stop of a vehicle is a seizure on all people involved. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007). Thus, an officer who conducts a routine traffic stop may perform a pat down of a driver and any passengers upon reasonable suspicion that they might be armed and dangerous.

Note: See also a related Massachusetts case, United State v. Michael Soares, 521 F. 3d 117 (2008).