Question: Is the scope of a Terry frisk limited to removing traditional weapons that are immediately known during the frisk?
Quick answer: No. You may remove any object that you reasonably believe could be used as a weapon against you.
Facts: During a valid traffic stop, a New Mexico police officer had reasonable suspicion to Terry frisk Rochin because the radio dispatcher warned that both Rochin and his vehicle may have been involved in a recent drive-by shooting. While frisking Rochin, the officer felt a long bulky object in each front pocket of Rochin’s pants, but could not identify the objects. The officer asked him what they were, but Rochin responded in Spanish that he did not know. At that point, the officer chose to remove the objects from Rochin’s pants and learned they were glass smoking pipes. The officer arrested him for drug possession.
Why the case is important: The scope of a Terry frisk is not limited to traditional weapons. A federal court of appeals found that, during a frisk, an officer may remove guns, knives, or any other objects that he reasonably thinks could be used to assault him. Here, it did not matter that the officer could not identify the objects. The Fourth Amendment focuses on reasonableness, not what a specific officer may have been thinking.
Keep in mind: A Terry frisk is designed for officer safety, so you should frisk a suspect when you have a reasonable suspicion that your safety may be threatened. But when a frisk reveals an unknown object in the suspect’s clothing, you should not remove it unless you reasonably believe it could be used as a weapon against you.
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