12/19/2011Federal Appeals Court Backs Traffic Stop Patdown
Tenth US Court of Appeals upholds frisk during a traffic stop.
As long as a police officer cites his own safety as the reason, he may frisk any motorist during a traffic stop and remove objects from his pockets, according to a ruling handed down Tuesday by the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. A three-judge panel evaluated whether Officer Joe Moreno was following the law when he searched driver Ivan Rochin after he was pulled over in Albuquerque, New Mexico for driving with an expired registration.
"No one likes being pulled over for a traffic violation," Judge Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the court. "Still, for most drivers the experience usually proves no more than an unwelcome (if often self-induced) detour from the daily routine. But not every traffic stop is so innocuous. Sometimes what begins innocently enough turns violent, often rapidly and unexpectedly. Every year, thousands of law enforcement officers are assaulted -- and many are killed -- in what seem at first to be routine stops for relatively minor traffic infractions."
According to the latest available Federal Bureau of Investigation crime statistics, six officers were killed while pursuing a ordinary traffic infractions in 2009. That represents 0.0008 percent of the 706,886 sworn officers nationwide. Four of these patrolmen were gunned down as they approached the stopped vehicle, and only one was shot while standing at the offender's vehicle window.
In this case, Rochin happened to match the description of someone wanted for a drive-by shooting. Moreno ordered him out of the car and performed a pat-down search that turned up glass pipes containing drugs. Rochin objected that it was absurd for the officer to remove the pipe from his pants on "officer safety" grounds, but the court ruled such a search was objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
"A reasonable officer could have concluded that the long and hard objects detected in Mr. Rochin's pockets might be used as instruments of assault, particularly given that an effort to ask Mr. Rochin about the identity of the objects had proved fruitless," Gorsuch wrote. "To be sure, the pipes Mr. Rochin turned out to have aren't conventionally considered weapons. But a reasonable officer isn't credited with x-ray vision and can't be faulted for having failed to divine the true identity of the objects."
The court upheld Rochin's conviction. A copy of the decision is available in a 20k PDF file at the source link below.