Can police search a passenger of a vehicle after making a routine traffic stop?

The officers pulled over an automobile after a license plate check revealed that the vehicle’s registration had been suspended for an insurance-related violation. Under Arizona law, the violation for which the vehicle was stopped constituted a civil infraction warranting a citation. At the time of the stop, the vehicle had three occupants—the driver, a front-seat passenger, and a passenger in the back seat, Lemon Montrea Johnson, the respondent here. In making the stop the officers had no reason to suspect anyone in the vehicle of criminal activity.

One of the officers wanted to question Johnson away from the front-seat passenger to gain “intelligence about the gang [Johnson] might be in.” For that reason, she asked him to get out of the car. Johnson complied. Based on officer’s observations and Johnson’s answers to her questions while he was still seated in the car, the officer suspected that “he might have a weapon on him.” When he exited the vehicle, she therefore “patted him down for officer safety.” During the patdown, the officer felt the butt of a gun near Johnson’s waist.

Could she pat him down? After all, he did not commit any crimes and there was no probable cause to believe that he had. In a pathmarking 1968 decision, Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court considered whether in the absence of a warrant to a course therefore, the police may temporarily stop an individual for questioning and frisk him or her for weapons. Terry upheld stop and frisk as a constitutionally permissible police practice, one that does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures if two conditions are met.

First, the investigatory stop must be lawful, that requirement is met in an on-the-street encounter when the police officer reasonably suspects that the person apprehended is committing or has committed a criminal offense. Second, to proceed from a stop to a frisk, the officer must reasonably suspect that the person stopped is armed and dangerous.

This Court has held that once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, police officers without offending the Fourth Amendment may order all occupants out of the car, driver, and passengers alike. The very same concern for officer and public safety, the Court observed, justifies the exit order whether the occupant ordered out is the driver or a passenger. For the duration of a traffic stop, the Court recently confirmed a police officer effectively and lawfully seizes everyone in the vehicle, the driver and all passengers.

In a traffic stop setting, we accordingly hold the first Terry condition, a permissible investigatory stop is met whenever it is lawful for the police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending inquiry into the traffic violation. To justify the stop, the police need not have an addition cause to believe any occupant of the vehicle is involved in criminal activity.

Because it was reasonable for the police officer to suspect from what he observed while Johnson was still seated in the car that he was armed and dangerous, admission of his gun into evidence did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Full Opinion here: Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009),

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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