9/15/2010Minnesota Appeals Court Upholds Search of Baggy Pants Motorist
Minnesota appellate court allows search of motorist whose baggy pants dropped under orders from police officer.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the conviction of a motorist whose pants fell down after he was ordered to put his hands up. Judge Kevin Ross noted on behalf of the three-judge panel considering the case that previous courts had never considered a search quite like the one conducted on Frank Irving Wiggins as he was ordered out of his car in the parking lot of a St. Paul White Castle in November 2008.
Officer Kara Breci had seen Wiggins in his idling vehicle and assumed he was involved in a drug deal since he was not eating. Breci investigated. After she saw a rear-seat passenger with a bag that looked like it contained marijuana, she ordered Wiggins and two passengers out of the car with hands on their head. The loose-fitting jeans Wiggins had been wearing immediately fell to the ground. As Breci pulled up Wiggins's pants, she felt an object that turned out to be a .380 pistol in his pocket. Because of his prior convictions, Wiggins was arrested and convicted by a district court for unlawful possession of a firearm.
Wiggins argued that the officer conducted a pat-down search without any reason to suspect that he was either armed or involved in criminal activity. The bag belonged to the guy in the back seat passenger, not him, he argued. The appeals court panel disagreed, suggesting there was sufficient reason for Officer Breci to investigate further. It also found that the her grabbing of Wiggins's pants was valid on grounds of modesty.
"Even assuming that Wiggins intended his pants to sag somewhat, the district court aptly construed the knee-level positioning as 'extreme,'" Judge Ross wrote for the court. "Perhaps [Breci] decided to raise Wiggins's pants to afford him a bit of dignity regardless of her planned search. Or perhaps she wanted to avoid the risk of contacting his genitalia through his underwear during her pat-search. Either way, we agree with the district court that the officer's incidental contact with the gun while lifting Wiggins's pants on decency grounds was not a search... She hoisted his pants presumably to conceal rather than to reveal. Her contact with his pants may have been a precursor to her pat-search, but it was not itself the search."
The court found that Breci had the right to prevent Wiggins from adjusting his own pants on the grounds of safety and that she had already decided to frisk Wiggins once his pants were stabilized.
"Wiggins argues that affirming the district court would encourage officers to trample the privacy of young people who participate in the baggy-pants fashion trend," Ross wrote. "The concern is unwarranted... Wiggins has not made and the facts would not support the claim that the officer's raising of his pants was a pretext to explore for contraband in his pockets; the officer had no motive to look for justification to search because she had already concluded that a pat-search was justified and she intended to conduct one immediately after Wiggins's pants were suitably rearranged."
A copy of the decision is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.