ANOTHER EXCEPTION TO THE SEARCH WARRANT REQUIREMENT IN THE MOTOR VEHICLE CONTEXT IS KNOWN AS A WEAPONS SEARCH EXCEPTION.
The weapons search exception allows a police officer to conduct a limited pat-down search of a suspect’s outer clothing without a search warrant in order to find dangerous weapons that might be used against the officer during the traffic stop.
There must first be a lawful traffic stop. If the police did not have a lawful reason to pull the vehicle over, then the officer cannot lawfully conduct a weapons search.
ASSUMING THE TRAFFIC STOP WAS LAWFUL, THE OFFICE MUST THEN HAVE REASONABLE SUSPICION TO BELIEVE THE SUSPECT IS ARMED AND DANGEROUS.
The officer does not have to actually be in fear for his safety, but must be able to point to objective reasons why he reasonably believed the suspect possessed a dangerous weapon. Typically, in order to uphold a warrantless weapons search, the officer’s own conduct during the traffic stop must demonstrate a fear for safety.
If the officer can justify the need for the warrantless weapons search, the right to search will also extend to the area of the vehicle within the suspect’s immediate control. This may include a search of any containers or bags near the suspect, as long as it is reasonable to believe that the container or bag might contain a dangerous weapon.
However, the weapons search exception does not give the officer an excuse to search the entire vehicle and open all containers within the vehicle. The search must be limited to the area immediately surrounding the suspect and also to containers that could reasonably contain a dangerous weapon. The officer would most likely not be able to lawfully search a cigarette pack, for example, under the weapons search exception.
During the pat-down search of a suspect, the officer cannot retrieve an item that he believes to be contraband because it is not reasonable to believe that the item is a dangerous weapon that could be used against the officer. That does not mean the officer is completely barred from seizing a baggie of marijuana.
There may be other search warrant exceptions that would allow the officer to search a suspect’s clothing and seize the baggie, but he could not do so under the weapons search exception. The police would have to justify that search and seizure under one of the other search warrant exceptions.
If you or someone you know was the subject of a police search following the stop of your motor vehicle, contact our Minneapolis/St. Paul criminal defense lawyers today.
Our attorneys will review the facts and circumstances of the stop of your vehicle and any search conducted by the police. If unlawful, our criminal defense lawyers will fight to have the evidence suppressed.