The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects individuals from illegal searches and seizures. This means that when police officers illegally conduct searches or illegally seize items, evidence obtained as a result of the illegal search or seizure cannot be used against the individual to convict them. Most illegal searches occur in the absence of a search warrant, but, not every warrantless search will justify a Fourth Amendment violation. There are exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of the biggest exceptions to the warrant requirement is a Terry stop. A Terry stop allows a police officer to conduct a “protective search” by performing a “pat-down” of an individual when an officer has reason to believe the individual is armed and dangerous. This exception, of course, has its limits. The Court of Appeals recently discussed such limits in its case of Peele v. State.1
In Peele, the defendant was appealing his drug conviction following a traffic stop which resulted in officers finding evidence of marijuana, methamphetamine, and numerous pills. The relevant facts are as follows. In 2017, Officer Levi James pulled over a vehicle for failure to use a turn signal. During his testimony, Officer James stated that the defendant, Peele, was exhibiting behaviors that indicated he might be armed. Acting on this belief, Officer James conducted a pat-down search of Peele. Officer James felt a “large object in the front of [Peele]’s waistband that wasn’t consistent with the human anatomy.” Officer James then began to move Peele in handcuffs, and at this point, a sock fell out of Peele’s waistband. Inside the rolled up sock, the Officer found marijuana, methamphetamine, and pills. Peele was subsequently charged with felony possession charges.
At the trial Peele argued that the evidence should be suppressed, arguing the search exceeded the scope of the Terry exception. The trial court denied Peele’s motion to suppress, finding that Peele “abandoned” the sock because it fell out of Peele’s pant leg. Peele was subsequently charged with felonies, and thereby appealed. On appeal, the Court sided with Peele and found that the evidence should be suppressed. In reaching this conclusion, the Court first discussed the purpose of the Terry exception. The Court pointed out that the “pat-down” allowed via Terry is for purposes of Officer safety. Once the sock fell out of Peele’s pant leg, it “was not within Peele’s immediate control,” and therefore, the sock no longer posed a “safety concern” justifying a warrantless search. The Court noted that if the Officer felt there was a safety concern presented by the sock, that the Officer could have simply moved it away from Peele, who was already in handcuffs. In sum, the Court found that the officer broadened the scope of Terry by conducting a warrantless search of the sock, which no longer presented a safety concern, in violation of the Defendant’s Fourth Amendment right.
This area of law is extremely technical, while also having the potential to completely change the course of your life. An individual who is unaware of their rights may have them violated without even knowing, leading to a negative result for you. The importance of understanding the status of developments in the law is the key to avoiding criminal liability, as well as being an engaged citizen in our participatory system of government. This blog post on a key new case was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle criminal defense cases and appeals of criminal convictions throughout the state. Knowing the law is a key to be an engaged citizen. Having criminal defense counsel current on the latest developments in law provides you with the best criminal defense. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.