In a traffic-stop setting, the first Terry condition -- a lawful investigatory stop -- is met whenever it is lawful for police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending inquiry into a vehicular violation. To justify a patdown of the driver or a passenger during a traffic stop, however, just as in the case of a pedestrian reasonably suspected of criminal activity, the police must harbor reasonable suspicion that the person subjected to the frisk is armed and dangerous.
While patrolling near a Tucson neighborhood associated with the Crips gang, police officers serving on Arizona's gang task force stopped an automobile for a vehicular infraction warranting a citation. At the time of the stop, the officers had no reason to suspect the car's occupants of criminal activity. Officer Trevizo attended to respondent Johnson, the back-seat passenger, whose behavior and clothing caused Trevizo to question him. After learning that Johnson was from a town with a Crips gang and had been in prison, Trevizo asked him to get out of the car in order to question him further, out of the hearing of the front-seat passenger, about his gang affiliation. Because she suspected that he was armed, she patted him down for safety when he exited the car. During the patdown, she felt the butt of a gun. At that point, Johnson began to struggle, and Trevizo handcuffed him. Johnson was charged with possession of a weapon by a prohibited possessor. At trial, the trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence, concluding that the stop and search was lawful and that Trevizo had cause to suspect Johnson was armed and dangerous. Johnson was convicted. The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed. While recognizing that Johnson was lawfully seized, the court found that, prior to the frisk, the detention had evolved into a consensual conversation about his gang affiliation. Trevizo, the court therefore concluded, had no right to pat Johnson down even if she had reason to suspect he was armed and dangerous. The Arizona Supreme Court denied review.
Did Officer Trevizo’s patdown of Johnson violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures?
The Court ruled that passengers could be ordered to get out during a traffic stop and the interest in officer safety allowed for patdowns for weapons if the officer reasonably concluded the passenger could be armed and dangerous. In the case at hand, Respondent was lawfully detained incident to the valid stop of the car in which he was a passenger. The Court asserted that it was unrealistic to characterize the officer/respondent interaction as "consensual." The encounter took place within minutes of the stop, the patdown followed within moments of respondent's exit from the car, and the point at which he could have felt free to leave had not yet occurred. According to the Court, the officer's inquiries into gang activity matters, unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop, did not convert the encounter into something other than a lawful seizure, since the inquiries did not measurably extend the stop's duration. Nothing could have conveyed to respondent that, prior to the frisk, the stop had ended or that he was otherwise free to leave without permission. In general, the Court held that the officer was not constitutionally required to give him an opportunity to leave after he exited the car without first ensuring that, in so doing, she was not permitting a dangerous person to get behind her.