Supreme Court Rules Stop and Frisk Constitutional in Arizona v. Johnson Case

Emily Ritchie

According to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, police officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures when patting down car occupants, both passengers and the driver, during a vehicle traffic-stop.

Arizona v. Johnson is a case concerning the authority of police officers to “stop and frisk” a passenger in a traffic-stop situation. The opinion and concluding decision was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The case roots from April 19, 2002, when Lemon Montrea Johnson was a back-seat passenger in a car stopped for insurance-related violations by Officer Maria Trevizo and Detectives Machado and Gittings in Tucson, Arizona. With this traffic-stop taking place in a gang-affiliated neighborhood, officer Trevizo wanted to gain intelligence from Johnson, in specific, about the Crips in the area. He was asked to exit the vehicle to talk but Trevizo first patted him down, finding a gun and marijuana, which led to Johnson being arrested and convicted with the charge of possession of a weapon by a prohibited possessor.

Johnson filed a motion concluding that his Fourth Amendment right was violated by officer Trevizo because the evidence for his conviction was gathered from an unlawful search; Johnson’s motion claims he was taking part in a consensual conversation.

According to the description written first in the opinion by Justice Ginsburg, “a divided panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed Johnson’s conviction.”

So, the overall question is raised; do officers violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures when, after making a routine traffic stop, they search an individual who is consensually conversing with those officers?

Thus, the Supreme Court was called on to make a final decision to this question.

Looking first at previous cases similar to the nature of this one, Justice Ginsburg explains “stop and frisk” as defined by Terry v. Ohio. He writes, ““stop and frisk” [is] constitutionally permissible if two conditions are met. First, the investigatory stop must be lawful. That requirement is met in an on-the-street encounter, Terry determined, when the police officer reasonably suspects that the person apprehended is committing or committed a criminal offense. Second, to proceed from a stop and frisk, the police officer must reasonably suspect that the person stopped is armed and dangerous.”

Justice Ginsburg reviews officer Trevizo’s first observations and if they play into a reasonable suspicion that Johnson could have been armed and dangerous.

“When she drew near, she observed that Johnson was wearing clothing, including a blue bandana, that she considered consistent with Crips membership. She also noticed a scanner in Johnson’s jacket pocket, which “struck [her] as highly unusual and cause [for] concern,” because “most people” would not carry around a scanner that way “unless they’re going to be involved in some kind of criminal activity,” stated the opinion.

Justice Ginsburg looks at why stop and frisk is necessary in situations very much like this one.

“Recognizing that a limited search of outer clothing for weapons serves to protect both the officer and the public, the Court held the patdown reasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” Ginsburg reflects this opinion that was concluded previously in Terry.

He goes on to explain that harm to the police, occupants and public is minimized if officers continually and routinely conduct stop and frisks in appropriate situations. He further explains this point by looking at another previous case of this nature, Pennsylvania v. Mimms.

“The government’s “legitimate and weighty” interest in officer safety, the Court said [in the Mimms case], outweighs the “de minimis” additional intrusion of requiring a driver, already lawfully stopped, to exit the vehicle… Specifically the Court instructed that “an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop”… Moreover, the Court noted, “as a practical matter, the passengers are already stopped by virtue of the stop of the vehicle,” so “the additional intrusion on the passenger is minimal,” Justice Ginsburg writes.

He then shifts his writing to examine the dissenting opinion of the Arizona Court of Appeals on this case. He reviews their argument as to why Johnson’s conviction should be reversed and why his Fourth Amendment rights might have been violated.

Again, this side of the opinion first explains the actions of the responding officer; “once Officer Trevizo undertook to question Johnson on a matter unrelated to the traffic stop, i.e., Johnson’s gang affiliation, patdown authority ceased to exist, absent reasonable suspicion that Johnson had engaged, or was about to engage, in criminal activity,” Justice Ginsburg starts.

The dissenting opinion further examines Officer Trevizo’s failure to advise Johnson that he could have refused to get out of the car and could have refused to turn around for a patdown. Justice Ginsburg writes that the dissenting opinion saw the interactions between Officer Trevizo and Johnson as “unrealistic” if referred to as “consensual.”

Justice Ginsburg concludes the dissenting opinion by explaining the gist of a lawful traffic stop.

“A lawful roadside stop begins when a vehicle is pulled over for investigation of a traffic violation. The temporary seizure of driver and passengers ordinarily continues, and remains reasonable, for the duration of the stop. Normally, the stop ends when the police have no further need to control the scene, and inform the driver and passengers they are free to leave. An officer’s inquiries into matters unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop, this Court has made plain, do not convert the encounter into something other than a lawful seizure, so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop,” Justice Ginsburg states.

Justice Ginsburg then takes the opinion into the concluding decision..

“In sum… a traffic stop of a car communicates to a reasonable passenger that he or she is not free to terminate the encounter with the police and move about at will. Nothing occurred in this case that would have conveyed to Johnson that, prior to the frisk, the traffic stop had ended or that he was otherwise free “to depart without police permission.” Officer Trevizo surely was not constitutionally required to give Johnson an opportunity to depart the scene after he exited the vehicle without first ensuring that, in doing so, she was not permitting a dangerous person to get behind her,” Justice Ginsburg decides.  

Thus, the judgment of the Arizona Court of Appeals was reversed and Johnson receives conviction.

It is so ordered,” concludes the opinion and decision of Justice Ginsburg regarding the case of Arizona v. Johnson.

Thus, police officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures when patting down car occupants, both passengers and the driver, during a vehicle traffic-stop and/or a consensual conversation.


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