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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Supreme Court Upholds Ariz. Traffic Stop Frisk

(CN) - An Arizona officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of a suspected gang member by patting him down for weapons during a routine traffic stop, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In Terry v. Ohio, the high court established that a "stop and frisk" must meet two conditions to be considered lawful: The officer must reasonably suspect that the person is committing or has committed a crime, and the officer must reasonably suspect that the person stopped is armed and dangerous.

While patrolling near a Tucson neighborhood associated with the Crips gang, Officer Maria Terzino stopped a car for a traffic infraction. She began talking to backseat passenger Lemon Montrea Johnson, whose behavior and blue bandana suggested gang affiliation.

After learning that Johnson was from a town with a Crips gang and had been in prison, Terzino asked him to get out of the car and proceeded to pat him down. During the patdown, she discovered a gun and arrested him. Johnson was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon.

The trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence, but the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Terzino had no right to frisk Johnson, even if she suspected he was armed and dangerous.

The nation's highest court unanimously ruled that Terzino had acted within her rights.

Once police establish reasonable cause for the investigatory stop, the court ruled, an officer effectively seizes "everyone in the vehicle," including the driver and all passengers. At that point, police can frisk anyone suspected of being armed and dangerous.

"The police need not have, in addition, cause to believe any occupant of the vehicle is involved in criminal activity," Justice Ginsburg wrote. "To justify a patdown of the driver or a passenger during a traffic stop ... the police must harbor reasonable suspicion that the person subjected to the frisk is armed and dangerous."

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