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Law School Case Brief

Pennsylvania v. Mimms - 434 U.S. 106, 98 S. Ct. 330 (1977)


Once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures.


While on routine patrol, two Philadelphia police officers observed respondent Harry Mimms driving an automobile with an expired license plate. The officers stopped the vehicle for the purpose of issuing a traffic summons. One of the officers approached and asked respondent to step out of the car and produce his owner's card and operator's license. Respondent alighted, whereupon the officer noticed a large bulge under respondent's sports jacket. Fearing that the bulge might be a weapon, the officer frisked respondent and discovered in his waistband a .38-caliber revolver loaded with five rounds of ammunition. The other occupant of the car was carrying a .32-caliber revolver. Respondent was immediately arrested and subsequently indicted for carrying a concealed deadly weapon and for unlawfully carrying a firearm without a license. His motion to suppress the revolver was denied; and, after a trial at which the revolver was introduced into evidence, respondent was convicted on both counts. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed respondent's conviction, however, holding that the revolver should have been suppressed because it was seized contrary to the guarantees contained in the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Petitioner Commonwealth then sought a review of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s decision.


Did the seizure of the evidence (i.e. revolver) violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution?




According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the order to get out of the car, issued after the respondent was lawfully detained, was reasonable and thus permissible under the Fourth Amendment. The State's proffered justification for such order - the officer's safety - is both legitimate and weighty, and the intrusion into respondent's personal liberty occasioned by the order, being at most a mere inconvenience, cannot prevail when balanced against legitimate concerns for the officer's safety. Furthermore, the Court noted that under the standard enunciated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21-22, that is, whether "the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or the search 'warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief' that the action taken was appropriate", there is little question the officer was justified. The Court ruled that the bulge in the jacket permitted the officer to conclude that Mimms was armed and thus posed a serious and present danger to the safety of the officer. In these circumstances, any man of "reasonable caution" would likely have conducted the "pat-down.”

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