MINNESOTA V. DICKERSON

CASE SUMMARY

Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993)

Officer stopped a defendant in an area known for drug activities. The officer pat down the defendant for weapons, but did not find any. The search however revealed that the defendant had crack cocaine in his pocket. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence of the cocaine, arguing that the search violated his fourth amendment rights.

Held: Although officers are justified under the plain view doctrine to seize contraband if its incriminating character is immediately apparent, in this particular case the incriminating character of the item in defendant’s pocket was not immediately apparent. Rather, officer was only able to identity the incriminating character of the contraband after conducting further searches.

Table of Contents

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO

FACTS

On the evening of November 9, 1989, two Minneapolis police officers were patrolling an area on the city’s north side in a marked squad car. At about 8:15 p.m., one of the officers observed Dickersn leaving a 12–unit apartment building on Morgan Avenue North. The officer had previously responded to complaints of drug sales in the building’s hallways and had executed several search warrants on the premises. He therefore considered the building to be a notorious “crack house.” 

According to testimony credited by the trial court, Dickerson began walking toward the police but, upon spotting the squad car and making eye contact with one of the officers, he abruptly halted and began walking in the opposite direction. The officer’s suspicion aroused as he watched Dickerson turn and enter an alley on the other side of the apartment building. Based upon Dickerson’s seemingly evasive actions and the fact that he had just left a building known for cocaine traffic, the officers decided to stop him and investigate further.

The officers pulled their squad car into the alley and ordered Dickerson to stop and submit to a patdown search. The search revealed no weapons, but the officer conducting the search did take an interest in a small lump in Dickerson’s nylon jacket. The officer later testified as follows:

“[A]s I pat-searched the front of his body, I felt a lump, a small lump, in the front pocket. I examined it with my fingers and it slid and it felt to be a lump of crack cocaine in cellophane.” 

The officer then reached into Dickerson’s pocket and retrieved a small plastic bag containing one fifth of one gram of crack cocaine.  He was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance.

Before trial, Dickerson moved to suppress the cocaine. The trial court first concluded that the officers were justified under Terry v. Ohio, in stopping Dickerson to investigate whether he might be engaged in criminal activity. The court further found that the officers were justified in frisking him to ensure that he was not carrying a weapon. Finally, analogizing to the “plain-view” doctrine, under which officers may make a warrantless seizure of contraband found in plain view during a lawful search for other items, the trial court ruled that the officers’ seizure of the cocaine did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

After his suppression motion failed, Dickerson proceeded to trial and was found guilty.

On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed. The court concluded that the officers had overstepped the bounds allowed by Terry in seizing the cocaine. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed.

Dickerson appealed his case further to the US Supreme Court.

ISSUES

Whether contraband detected through the sense of touch during a patdown search may be admitted into evidence.

RULE

Under the plain view doctrine, If a police officer lawfully pats down a suspect’s outer clothing and feels an object whose contours or mass makes its identity immediately apparent, a warrantless seizure is justified if the item is contraband.

APPLICATION / ANALYSIS

Here the court found that officers are justified under the plain view doctrine to seize contraband if its incriminating character is immediately apparent. However, in this particular case the court found that the incriminating character of the item in Dickerson’s pocket was not immediately apparent. Rather, officer was only able to identity the incriminating character of the contraband after conducting further searches.

The court explained that we have already held that police officers, at least under certain circumstances, may seize contraband detected during the lawful execution of a search.

Under the plain view doctrine 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.

We think that this doctrine has an obvious application by analogy to cases in which an officer discovers contraband through the sense of touch during an otherwise lawful search. The rationale of the plain-view doctrine is that if contraband is left in open view and is observed by a police officer from a lawful vantage point, there has been no invasion of a legitimate expectation of privacy and thus no “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment—or at least no search independent of the initial intrusion that gave the officers their vantage point. The warrantless seizure of contraband that presents itself in this manner is deemed justified by the realization that resort to a neutral magistrate under such circumstances would often be impracticable and would do little to promote the objectives of the Fourth Amendment. 

The same can be said of tactile discoveries of contraband. If a police officer lawfully pats down a suspect’s outer clothing and feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity immediately apparent, there has been no invasion of the suspect’s privacy beyond that already authorized by the officer’s search for weapons; if the object is contraband, its warrantless seizure would be justified by the same practical considerations that inhere in the plain-view context.

Next the court applied the plain view principle to the facts of this case:

There, the court explained that Dickerson has not challenged the finding made by the trial court and affirmed by both the Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court that the police were justified in stopping him and frisking him for weapons. Thus, the dispositive question before this Court is whether the officer who conducted the search was acting within lawful bounds at the time he gained probable cause to believe that the lump in respondent’s jacket was contraband.

To answer this question, the court explained that, Under the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of the record before it, it is clear that the court was correct in holding that the police officer in this case overstepped the bounds of the “strictly circumscribed” search for weapons allowed under Terry. Where, as here, an officer who is executing a valid search for one item seizes a different item, this Court rightly has been sensitive to the danger … that officers will enlarge a specific authorization, furnished by a warrant or an exigency, into the equivalent of a general warrant to rummage and seize at will.  Here, the officer’s continued exploration of Dickerson’s pocket after having concluded that it contained no weapon was unrelated to the sole justification of the search under Terry: the protection of the police officer and others nearby. It therefore amounted to the sort of evidentiary search that Terry expressly refused to authorize and that we have condemned in subsequent cases.

Although the officer was lawfully in a position to feel the lump in Dickerson’s pocket, because Terry entitled him to place his hands upon his’s jacket, the court below determined that the incriminating character of the object was not immediately apparent to him. Rather, the officer determined that the item was contraband only after conducting a further search, one not authorized by Terry or by any other exception to the warrant requirement. 

CONCLUSION

The court held that because the officer was able to identify the incriminating nature of the contraband after conducting further searches, this further search of Dickerson’s pocket was constitutionally invalid, and the seizure of the cocaine that followed is likewise unconstitutional.

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