Officers observed a vehicle driving erratically and speeding. They watched as the vehicle swerved off the road into a ditch. As the officers stopped to investigate, the defendant got out, leaving the driver’s side door open, and met the officers near the rear of the vehicle. The officers noted that the defendant appeared to be under the influence of either alcohol or drugs. The defendant initially failed to provide his license, although he complied following a second request. When asked to produce the vehicle’s registration, the defendant again failed to comply and, after a second request, began walking towards the open door of the vehicle. Both officers followed him and observed a large knife on the floorboard of the vehicle. Stopping the defendant, the officers conducted a frisk of his person, although no weapons were recovered. One of the officers shined his flashlight into the vehicle’s passenger compartment to search for other weapons. When the officer noticed something sticking out from under the armrest, he lifted it and found an open pouch containing what appeared to be marijuana inside. The defendant was arrested for possession of marijuana.
Whether officers can conduct a frisk of the passenger compartment of a vehicle following a lawful investigatory stop of the vehicle?
Yes. Officers may frisk the passenger compartment of a vehicle, limited to those areas in which a weapon may be found, if the officers reasonably believe that the suspect is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons.
The Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio does not restrict frisks to the body of the suspect. “Past cases indicate that (1) the protection of police officers, as well as others, may justify protective searches when police have a reasonable belief that the suspect poses a danger; (2) roadside encounters between police and suspects are especially hazardous; and (3) danger may arise from the possible presence of weapons in the area surrounding a suspect.” The frisk of a passenger compartment of an automobile, restricted to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden, is reasonable if the officers can articulate a reasonable belief that the suspect is armed and dangerous.
463 U.S. 1032, 103 S. Ct. 3469 (1983)