Date of Judgment: January 26, 2009
In 2002, Lemon Montrea Johnson was the passenger in the backseat of a car stopped for a traffic violation. Johnson was charged with; inter alia, possession of drugs and possession of a weapon by a felon. These items were discovered during a protective pat-down search of Johnson. Johnson was convicted by the trial court. Johnson argued that his conviction should be overturned because the trial court was in error by denying his motion to suppress the evidence. He argued that he had been unlawfully “seized” because being a passenger in a vehicle does not automatically constitute “seizure.” He furthered argued that even if he had been “seized,” that by the time Officer Trevizo searched him he was no longer “seized” as their conversation had become consensual. Furthermore, the evidence should not be considered because the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights and because the officer had no reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was occurring as mandated by Terry v Ohio. On September 10, 2007, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. The court concluded that Trevizo had no right to pat Johnson down even though she believed he was armed and dangerous. The court held that Johnson, although legally detained, had evolved into consensual conversation with officer Trevizo regarding his gang affiliation. This conversation was not connected to the traffic stop of the driver; therefore, the officer may not conduct a pat-down without reasonable cause to believe that “criminal activity may be afoot.” On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the state argued that police officers should have the right to conduct a pat-down search if they believe the person may be armed and dangerous. On June 23, 2008 the United States Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for a writ of certiorari. The question presented in this case is do police officers have the authority to “stop and frisk” a passenger in a motor vehicle temporarily detained upon police detection of a traffic infraction on the basis they believe the person may be armed and dangerous, even when there is no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity? The Supreme Court decided that yes an officer’s reasonable belief that a person is armed and dangerous is sufficient for performing a pat-down search. They established that a Terry “stop” is met when police lawfully detain a vehicle and its occupants on a traffic violation. The police do not have to believe anyone in the vehicle is involved in criminal activity. A Terry “frisk” is justified if police reasonably believe the person may be armed and dangerous. Although this case is based on conditions of a traffic stop, one has to wonder if this will open the door to intrusive searches by officers in varying situations. FACTS
On April 19, 2002, Officer Maria Trevizo and Detectives Machado and Gittings, members of Arizona’s gang task force, were patrolling in the Tucson neighborhood Sugar Hill, an area associated with the Crips gang. Around 9 p.m., they pulled over a vehicle after a license plate check revealed its registration had been suspended for mandatory insurance law. The vehicle had three occupants, the driver, a passenger in the front seat, and Lemon Montrea Johnson, respondent, in the back seat. At the time of the stop, the officers had no reason to suspect anyone in the vehicle of criminal activity. The officers walked toward the car. Machado told the occupants to keep their hands in sight. He inquired if there were any weapons in the vehicle, all three said no. Machado instructed the driver to get out of the car. Gittings talked to the front seat passenger, who remained in the vehicle throughout the duration of the traffic stop. Machado interviewed the driver regarding the insurance and registration. Trevizo dealt with Johnson. As Officer Trevizo approached the vehicle, she noticed...