Law School Case Brief
Minnesota v. Dickerson - 508 U.S. 366, 113 S. Ct. 2130 (1993)
Under the plain-view doctrine, if police are lawfully in a position from which they view an object, if its incriminating character is immediately apparent, and if the officers have a lawful right of access to the object, they may seize it without a warrant. If, however, the police lack probable cause to believe that an object in plain view is contraband without conducting some further search of the object—i. e., if its incriminating character is not immediately apparent—the plain-view doctrine cannot justify its seizure.
After leaving a Minneapolis, Minnesota apartment building which was considered by police officers to be a place of cocaine traffic, or a "crack house," defendant Timothy Dickerson began walking toward a marked squad car in which two police officers were patrolling. Upon making eye contact with one of the officers, Dickerson abruptly halted, began walking in the opposite direction, and turned and entered an alley on the other side of the building. The officers pulled the squad car into the alley and ordered Dickerson to stop and submit to a pat-down search. The search revealed no weapons, but the officer who conducted the search felt a small lump in the front pocket of Dickerson's nylon jacket. As the officer later testified, the officer examined the lump with his fingers, and "it slid and it felt to be a lump of crack cocaine in cellophane." The officer then reached into the pocket and retrieved a small plastic bag containing one-fifth of one gram of crack cocaine. Dickerson was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance. Prior to trial in a Minnesota county court, Dickerson moved to suppress the cocaine. Denying the motion, the trial court ruled that the officers were justified in stopping Dickerson to investigate whether he might be engaged in criminal activity, and frisking Dickerson to insure that he was not carrying a weapon. It also ruled that the officers' warrantless seizure of the cocaine, after the officer who searched Dickerson "formed the opinion" that the small lump was cocaine, was supported by "plain feel" and hence did not violate the Federal Constitution's Fourth Amendment. Dickerson was tried and found guilty. On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed concluding that the seizure of the cocaine was unconstitutional and declined to adopt a "plain feel" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. On further appeal, the Supreme Court of Minnesota expressed the view that the "plain view" exception to the warrant requirement did not extend to the sense of touch and even if a "plain feel" exception was recognized, an examination of the record indicated that the officer who searched Dickerson did not immediately recognize the lump in Dickerson's pocket as cocaine, but rather that the officer determined that the lump was contraband only after squeezing, sliding, and otherwise manipulating the contents of the pocket, which the officer already knew contained no weapon.
Did the "plain view" exception to the warrant requirement extend to the sense of touch?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the state supreme court's judgment that the police officer overstepped the bounds of the "strictly circumscribed" search for weapons allowed under Terry v. Ohio when the officer retrieved a lump of cocaine from Dickerson's pocket. It held that: (1) consistent with the Fourth Amendment, a police officer may seize nonthreatening contraband detected during a protective pat-down search of a person whom the officer has briefly stopped based on the officer's reasonable conclusion that criminal activity may be afoot with respect to such person, where the officer is justified in believing that the person is armed and presently dangerous to the officer or to others nearby, so long as the officer's search is strictly limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons which might be used to harm the officer or others; but (2) in the case at hand, the Fourth Amendment did not permit the seizure of the cocaine where (a) the officer determined that the lump was contraband only after squeezing, sliding, and otherwise manipulating the contents of the pocket, which the officer already knew contained no weapon, and (b) because the officer's further search of the pocket was constitutionally invalid in that it was not authorized by Terry v. Ohio or any other exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, the seizure of the cocaine that followed likewise was unconstitutional.
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