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"Protective Sweeps" an Exception to the Warrant Requirement

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Police may conduct a protective sweep throughout the interior of the car based upon a reasonable suspicion in light of the totality of the circumstances.

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Criminal Defense Attorney, Harrisburg, PA

Recently, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Tuggles, 58 A.3d 840 (December 20, 2012) held that it was appropriate for an officer to conduct a protective sweep of the interior compartment of a vehicle after stopping that car for a traffic violation.  The car was located in a high crime, high drug area at night and there were suspicious movements observed by the passengers prior to the stop.  The suspect was arrested during traffic stop after officer searched defendant's vehicle and found drugs and currency.

This type of search is different than those I have previously blogged about that relate to roadside detentions. See blog links (Traffic Search and Car Search- Part I, Part II, and Consent to Search). Here, this was deemed a "protective sweep" or a search of the arm span of the occupants. This is a limited search of the interior compartment for harmful instrumentalities (gun, knife, pipe, etc.). Generally, to search a car, police need a warrant or consent or probable cause and an exigent circumstance. It was permitted because of the totality of the circumstances (at night, high crime/high drug area, furtive movements, and the occupants were being returned to the car) and it was limited to the center console.

In Tuggles, the Court stated as follows:

In Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983), and Commonwealth v. Morris, 537 Pa. 417, 644 A.2d 721 (1994), the respective Supreme Courts promulgated the test for determining whether a police officer may conduct a protective search of the interior compartment of a car for weapons. In Long, the United States Supreme Court applied the test announced in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), and held that a weapons search may be performed where an officer has reasonable suspicion that a firearm may be secreted in the car and that the search may encompass any area where a weapon could be hidden and accessible to the defendant in the vehicle. In Long, the High Court made the apt observation that "detentions involving suspects in vehicles are especially fraught with danger to police officers."

What Does a "Reasonable Suspicion Mean"?

In upholding the existence of reasonable suspicion to conduct a protective weapons sweep of the vehicle, our Supreme Court ruled that the police officer had sufficient facts at his disposal to warrant a reasonably prudent man to believe that his safety "was compromised" sufficiently to allow the police intrusion in question.

If you've been detained for a traffic citation and had your person or your vehicle searched, you need to contact experienced defense counsel to assist you.  You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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