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Thornton v. United States


Before an officer had the opportunity to stop the defendant for a license plate violation, the defendant pulled into a parking lot, parked, and got out of his vehicle. He was walking away from his vehicle as the officer pulled in behind him. The officer stopped him and asked for his driver’s license. During this encounter, the officer obtained the defendant’s consent to pat him down for weapons and narcotics. He found a controlled substance and placed the defendant, a convicted felon, under arrest. The officer then opened the defendant’s vehicle and searched. There he found a weapon.


Whether the officer can search the passenger’s compartment of a vehicle the arrestee has walked away from?


Yes. The law enforcement officer has the same safety concerns about a suspect either in or near a motor vehicle.


The Court held that the arrest of a defendant who is near a vehicle presents the same safety and destruction of evidence concerns as an arrest of a defendant who is inside a vehicle. The stresses associated with an arrest, the Court determined, are not lessened by the fact that the arrestee exited the vehicle before an officer initiated the contact.


541 U.S. 615, 124 S. Ct. 2137 (2004)

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