Minnesota v. Dickerson

Case Law Review

Minnesota v. Dickerson

Is it okay for the police to seize illegal items they feel during a pat-down search?

During a ‘terry’ pat-down, an officer feels something, which, according to protocol, should involve running hands over outer clothing. Upon manipulation, the officer identifies the item as crack cocaine and seizes it. Is this action permissible?


Plain Feel Doctrine

If a police officer, while performing a Terry frisk, feels an object that isn't a weapon but its shape or size makes it immediately apparent to the officer that it's contraband, the officer can seize it right away. However, there can be no further manipulation of the pockets. It must be immediately apparent. Meaning, if you aren’t immediately certain once you feel it the first time, don’t seize it. “Manpulation of the pockets constitutes a further search outside of the scope of a “terry frisk.”

Background (1989)

 On November 9, 1989, two Minneapolis police officers saw Timothy Dickerson leave a known crack house and start walking toward them. When Dickerson saw the police car he immediately turned and started walking in the opposite direction. The officers followed Timothy into an alley and stopped him based on reasonable suspicion.

One of the officers conducted a pat-down and did not feel any weapons. However, the officer felt a lump in Dickerson’s front pocket. After further manipulation of the pocket, the officer formed the belief that it was cocaine. Then the officer reached into Dickerson’s front pocket and pulled out a plastic bag. The officer’s suspicion proved correct and Dickerson was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance.

At trial, Dickerson filed for a motion to suppress the evidence based on the evidence being obtained in violation of the 4th amendment. The lower court ruled that the discovery of the cocaine during a ‘Terry Frisk’ was similar to that of the “plain view doctrine” (which allows police to seize contraband in plain view during a lawful search). However, Dickerson filed an appeal.

The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's ruling, sending the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling. It noted that the officer discovered the cocaine only after he continued to investigate an item that he knew was not a weapon. 

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state supreme court's interpretation that the officer's excessive probing into the defendant's pocket after it was apparent that the pocket did not contain a weapon, overstepped the bounds of the search for weapons allowed under Terry. The officer discovered that Dickerson had cocaine only after closely examining the pocket with his fingers. Manipulation of the pockets constituted a further search.

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