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Minnesota v. Dickerson


The holding reinforced the limitations on police officers who search persons for weapons before talking to them. It also demonstrated that the Rehnquist Court, a Court renowned for its deference to police activity, was capable of circumscribing police powers.

On 9 November 1989, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officers Vernon D. Rose and Bruce S. Johnson were patrolling an area on the city's north side. Officer Rose knew that an apartment that they were passing was notorious for its illegal drug activity. As the officers drove in their marked squad car, Timothy Dickerson emerged from the apartment building. Dickerson saw the officers in their car and headed in the opposite direction to an alley on the other side of the apartment building. With their interest piqued by Dickerson's evasive action, the officers followed Dickerson and stopped him.

The officers ordered Dickerson to submit to a patdown search. Officer Rose did not find weapons on Dickerson, but the officer did encounter a small lump in Dickerson's nylon jacket. Officer Rose felt a small lump in the front pocket and thought that it might be drugs. Rose removed the lump from Dickerson's jacket, determined that the object was in fact crack cocaine, and arrested Dickerson.

Dickerson was charged with possession of a controlled substance. Before trial, he moved to have the cocaine evidence excluded, arguing that the search was conducted in violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court denied the request, finding that the officers were justified in stopping Dickerson, that they were justified in frisking Dickerson, and that the seizure of the cocaine did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The court compared the seizure of the cocaine to the seizure of any contraband under the "plain view" doctrine, a judicial rule that allows officers to seize any contraband in their plain view without obtaining a search warrant from a magistrate. According to the trial court, there was "no distinction as to which sensory perception the officer uses to conclude that the material is contraband." Since it was legal for police officers to seize, without a warrant, contraband that is in plain view, the court reasoned, police officers also should be able to seize objects that plainly feel like contraband. This analysis created a "plain feel" exception to the requirement of a search warrant.

Dickerson was found guilty at trial, but the conviction was reversed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The appeals court held that the stop was lawful, but it rejected the plain feel doctrine, holding that the officers did not have the authority to seize the cocaine. The Minnesota Supreme Court also rejected the plain feel doctrine and affirmed, and the state of Minnesota appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Noting a conflict between state and federal courts on the topic of warrantless plain feel seizures, the Supreme Court consented to hear the case. By a vote of 6-2, with Chief Justice Rehnquist concurring in part and dissenting in part, the High Court affirmed the reversal of Dickerson's conviction.

Justice White, writing for the majority, began the opinion at the usual starting point in Fourth Amendment analysis: police officers must obtain a warrant before conducting a search unless the circumstances of the search fit one of a few well established and clearly delineated exceptions. One of these exceptions is known as the "Terry stop," a circumstance named after the facts in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio. In that case, the Court ruled that a police officer may stop and question a person and perform a limited patdown search for weapons if the person is engaged in "unusual conduct which leads [the officer] reasonably to conclude in light of [the officer's] experience that criminal activity may be afoot." The Court held that such a search was not unreasonable because it felt officers have the right, when making contact with suspicious strangers, to discover weapons that might be used to injure the officer or others.

The issue in Dickerson's case was slightly different from the Terry case. In Terry, the police had discovered a gun on the suspect. The Minneapolis police found no weapons on Dickerson, but they did find an illegal substance. Thus, the issue in Dickerson's case was whether the police have the right to seize "nonthreatening contraband detected during a protective patdown search." The Court answered that question in the affirmative, but it held that the search and seizure in Dickerson's case had exceeded the bounds of searches conducted during a Terry stop and was therefore unlawful.

The majority opinion cited Supreme Court precedents endorsing the rule that if police "lack probable cause to believe that an object in plain view is contraband without conducting some further search of the object," then the object cannot be made admissible by invoking the plain view doctrine. Because the officer could not determine the contents of the drug packet without further examining it, however, the contraband found through the sense of feel could not be admitted.

The Court agreed with the Minnesota Supreme Court's conclusion, but it disagreed with the state court's analysis. The Minnesota Supreme Court had held that the seizure was unlawful because the sense of touch is less immediate and less reliable than the sense of sight, and because the sense of touch is more intrusive than the sense of sight. Such factors, reasoned the Minnesota court, militated against acceptance of the plain feel doctrine. This kind of reasoning, the Court instructed, did not follow the Terry case, which clearly held that a police officer's warrantless use of the sense of touch was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. With the U.S. Supreme Court already having established a police officer's right to feel in Terry, the Minnesota court's concerns about privacy were misplaced because "[t]he seizure of an item whose identity is already known occasions no further invasion of privacy."

The real reason that Rose's search of Dickerson was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment was because it exceeded the lawful bounds of such searches outlined in Terry. Citing Texas v. Brown (1983), a case that relied on Terry, the High Court held that Rose's "continued exploration of [Dickerson's] pocket after having concluded that it contained no weapon was unrelated to `[t]he sole justification of the search [under Terry:] . . . the protection of the police officer and others nearby.'" Officer Rose's own testimony revealed that he did not determine the exact nature of the lump until he conducted a search that exceeded the limited frisk for weapons authorized by Terry, so Rose's search of Dickerson was unlawful. Although it took a different route, the High Court arrived at the same conclusion as the Minnesota Supreme Court, and the reversal of Dickerson's conviction remained intact.

Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion in which he analyzed the constitutional issue from the perspective of the framers' original intent. Scalia believed that Rose's stop of Dickerson should be ruled legal not because it was allowed by the Terry case, but because so-called "nightwalker statutes" had allowed police to stop persons at the time the Constitution was written. The Terry case, according to Scalia, represented bad law, a product of the "original-meaning-is-irrelevant, good-policy-is-constitutional-law school of jurisprudence." Scalia questioned the legality of the search, doubting as he did that "the fiercely proud men who adopted our Fourth Amendment would have allowed themselves to be subjected, on mere suspicion of being armed and dangerous, to such indignity." Nevertheless, Scalia did not think Terry was wrongly decided, so he joined the opinion of the Court.

Justices Rehnquist, Blackmun, and Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part. These justices agreed with the opinion of the majority that Rose's stop of Dickerson was legal. However, they would not have affirmed the judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The factual findings of the Minnesota court were imprecise, noted the justices, because the court had not used the correct Fourth Amendment analysis.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994Minnesota v. Dickerson - Significance, Impact, Nightwalker Statutes, Further Readings