Officers lawfully stopped the defendant for driving a vehicle with an expired license plate. One of the officers approached and asked the defendant to step out of the car and produce his driver’s license and registration. It was the common practice of the officer to order all drivers out of their vehicles whenever they conducted a stop for a traffic violation. As the defendant got out of the car, the officer noticed a large bulge under the defendant’s sport jacket. Fearing that the bulge might be a weapon, the officer frisked the defendant and discovered a loaded handgun. The defendant was immediately arrested for carrying a concealed deadly weapon and for carrying a firearm without a license.
1. Whether the officer’s order to get out of the car during a lawful traffic stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment?
2. Whether the frisk of the defendant was lawful under the Fourth Amendment?
The key to any Fourth Amendment analysis is whether the challenged conduct was reasonable. The reasonableness of conduct depends on “a balance between the public interest and the individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by police officers.” With regard to the first issue, the safety of an officer is a legitimate and weighty concern (officer will not have to stand near traffic flow, etc.) that outweighs the minimal intrusion suffered by a driver who is asked to get out of a lawfully stopped car. With regard to the second issue, the Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio was controlling. “The bulge in the defendant’s jacket permitted the officer to conclude that the defendant was armed and thus posed a serious and present danger to the safety of the officers.”
434 U.S. 106, 98 S. Ct. 330 (1977)