Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Officers May Open Car Door to Conduct Visual Inspection of Passenger Who Claims To Be Unable to Exit Car Because of Physical Condition

United States v. Meredith, No. 05-31071 (5th Cir. Feb. 26, 2007) (Jones, Wiener, Barksdale)

Officers on "proactive patrol" (no doubt a creature of Whren) stop a car for traffic violations (no tail lights and improper lane change). They order the driver and passenger out of the car. The driver follows the order, but the passenger explains that he can't do so because he's a paraplegic. While one officer frisks the driver at the back of the car, the other officer opens the passenger door and sees a handgun-shaped bulge in the passenger's pants. He pats down the passenger and finds a loaded .357 revolver. Officers run a background check and learn that the passenger is a convicted felon.

The passenger was Henry Meredith. He was subsequently charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the revolver, the ammo, and statements he made at the time, arguing that the officer lacked a reasonable suspicion to open the passenger door and pat him down. The district court, sans evidentiary hearing, denied the motion, concluding that the totality of circumstances created a reasonable suspicion that Meridith was armed and dangerous. Meredith pled guilty (conditonally), and appealed.

The court pointed out that Pennsylvania v. Mimms and Maryland v. Wilson allow officers conducting a traffic stop to order the driver and passengers out of the car. If there is a reasonable suspicion that one of the vehicle occupants is armed and dangerous, an officer may frisk that person for weapons a la Terry. The court further acknowledged that opening the car door is a search, requiring reasoanable suspicion. So that means that the question here is whether the officer had the reasonable suspicion necessary to open the passenger door and take a gander at Meridith, right?

Wrong. Instead of deciding that question, the court chose to extend Mimms and Wilson thusly: "We conclude that the most reasonable way to serve the officer-safety purpose of Mimms and Wilson under circumstances like these is to extend the Court’s reasoning to include a minimally necessary visual inspection of a non-exiting occupant while he is still seated in the car." Slip op. at 9. The court offered some additional justification for this result apart from the officer-safety rationale. First, it "ensur[es] equal treatment of handicapped and non-handicapped occupants alike." Second, it's "the only practical way for an officer to confirm an occupant’s claimed handicap or expose his pretext." [Speaking of pretexts, how about this traffic stop?] Finally, "allowing an officer to open the car door and view a handicapped occupant is less intrusive than other options, such as (1) ordering the handicapped occupant to crawl out of the car or exit as best he can; (2) detaining all occupants until a warrant could be obtained; or (3) detaining all occupants until a wheelchair or other device to enable the disabled occupant’s exit could be obtained." Id. at 9-11.



Post a Comment

<< Home