Officers developed reasonable suspicion the defendant was recently involved in a drug transaction. They frisked him but did not find any weapons. However, the officer conducting the frisk felt a small lump in the defendant’s jacket pocket. Upon examining the lump further with his fingers, the officer believed the lump to be crack cocaine. The officer then reached into the defendant’s pocket and retrieved a small amount of cocaine.
Whether the intrusion into the defendant’s pocket was reasonable?
No. Officers may seize contraband detected through the sense of touch during frisks only if
the evidence is immediately apparent to be such at the moment it was touched.
In Terry v. Ohio the Supreme Court permitted officers to conduct brief stops of persons whose suspicious conduct leads an officer to conclude that criminal activity may be afoot. The Supreme Court authorized a frisk for weapons if the officer reasonably suspects that the person may be armed and presently dangerous. Frisks are not meant to discover evidence of crime, but must be strictly limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons. If the protective search intrudes beyond what is necessary to learn if the suspect is armed, it is no longer valid under Terry and its fruits will be suppressed.
However, once an officer has lawfully frisked a suspect, and the officer feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity “immediately apparent,” there has been no invasion of the suspect’s privacy beyond that already authorized by the officer’s search for weapons. If the object is contraband, its warrantless seizure is justified.
Application of these principles to this case does not demonstrate the officer conducting the frisk had probable cause (immediately apparent) to believe the lump in the defendant’s jacket was contraband. The officer decided the lump was contraband only after he squeezed, slid, and otherwise continued to manipulate the pocket’s contents. While Terry entitled the officer to place his hands on the defendant’s jacket and to initially feel the lump in the pocket, the officer’s continued manipulation of the pocket after he concluded it did not contain a weapon was unrelated to the Terry frisk. Therefore, the officer’s intrusion into the defendant’s jacket was unreasonable.
508 U.S. 366, 113 S. Ct. 2130 (1993)