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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > November 2012 > State v. Wade — Ninth District Court of Appeals (Lorain, Medina, Summit, Wayne), Sept. 19, 2012

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State v. Wade — Ninth District Court of Appeals (Lorain, Medina, Summit, Wayne), Sept. 19, 2012

Question: If no occupant of a car has access to the vehicle, are officers still able to rely on concerns relating to safety and destruction of evidence to conduct a limited search?

Quick Answer: If the occupants will be allowed to return to the vehicle, a limited search is a reasonable protective measure because the occupants could regain immediate control of a weapon once back in the car.

Facts: An SUV was stopped for failing to display a front license plate. During the traffic stop, officers noticed Ryan Wade sitting in the back seat of the SUV making unusual movements. Officers asked him to step out of the vehicle. While Wade stood outside the vehicle, he was fidgety, nervous, and didn’t immediately comply with officer instruction. One officer patted Wade down for weapons while another officer searched the area where Wade had been a passenger. Officers found a gun where Wade had been sitting. Wade was placed under arrest, and the driver was permitted to return to the SUV based on a valid license.

Why this case is important: A warrantless search should be no more intrusive than necessary. In this case, the limited search of the passenger area was necessary because of the officers’ fear that the suspect was dangerous and might gain control of a weapon. But the officer’s belief must be reasonable and based on specific and articulable facts as well as rational inferences from those facts. Under these circumstances, when a passenger made movements consistent with concealing a weapon, exhibited excessive nervousness, and hesitated to comply with police requests, it was reasonable for officers to conduct a protective search for officer safety. A protective search was reasonable as a preventive measure when the occupants were temporarily removed from the vehicle and would ultimately be permitted to return.

Keep in mind: In order to determine if a protective search is reasonable, courts will look to see if the surrounding facts justify a reasonably cautious officer’s belief that the search was necessary to maintain officer safety. A limited search of the area underneath Wade’s seat was a reasonable protective measure because Wade would have been permitted to return to the SUV at the conclusion of the traffic stop and could have regained immediate control of a weapon.

Visit the Ninth District Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.