Police Can Only Frisk a Suspect who Appears Dangerous

During a traffic stop, police officers may feel empowered to violate an occupant’s constitutional rights because they rely on the fact that most defendants are represented by ineffective lawyers who lack the skills necessary to challenge an illegal search.

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United States v Noble, is an important new case, decided by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that applies to Michigan, relating to what a police officer can and cannot do regarding frisking a suspect during a traffic stop. In Nobel, local police were asked by a Drug Enforcement Administration task force to stop a vehicle for a traffic violation. Local police received information that a car was linked to a DEA investigation.

The police stopped the car based solely on its alleged connection to a DEA investigation, and the officer noticed that the passenger, Ms. Noble, was nervous. The driver gave consent to search the car, and the police officer removed the driver and Ms. Nobel from the vehicle. Next, the officer searched both of them for weapons. The officer founds drugs and a handgun on Ms. Nobel. Ms. Nobel was convicted, and the trial judge denied her challenge to the search.

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Reversed on Appeal – Illegal Search and Seizure

The Court of Appeals ruled that most traffic stops are a minor inconvenience for motorists, but dangerous to police officers. Police officers may order occupants out of the car without violating the Fourth Amendment. However, they cannot frisk a suspect unless they have reasonable suspicion to believe a particular person is armed and dangerous. Reasonable suspicion means there must be specific and articulable facts supporting the suspicion.

In the Nobel case, the police officer testified that he felt the frisk was necessary for officer safety because of Nobel’s being nervous and the fact that the vehicle under suspicion in a DEA investigation. Also, he said that he learned in police training that most suspects are armed. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court. The fact that the defendant was nervous was inconsequential. The Court stated that many people are nervous when dealing with the police, and there is nothing suspicious about that fact alone.  In its ruling, the appellate court found that many judges disregard this fundamental truth. The Court also noted that there was no evidence that there was a lack of cooperation or an escalation of the defendant’s nervousness. Additionally, the Court said that a car’s connection to a drug trafficking investigation does not automatically give the police the right to stop the vehicle or frisk the occupants. There must be a specific and articulable reason to believe a particular person is armed and dangerous before a frisk is allowable.

The Court reminded police officers that there is no general officer safety exception to the search warrant requirement. A traffic stop can occur based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Once stopped, an officer needs additional reasonable suspicion that the particular person is armed and dangerous before a frisk is constitutional.

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