A person stopped and questioned as a possible suspect in a crime may be searched only in a limited manner to check for weapons, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The ruling came in a case in which police searched a man who generally fit the description of a look-out in a burglary. During the search, police officers discovered the man had possession of 25 packets of heroin. He was never charged in the burglary case for which he was originally stopped, but was prosecuted and convicted on heroin charges.
The defendant, Tyrone Vincent Short, claimed through his attorney that the search was illegal because the police had no probable cause to arrest him as a burglary suspect based on the general description the police had. And without probable cause to arrest him for burglary, the search during which police discovered the heroin was illegal, he claimed.
Because he was being detained merely for identification purposes, Short argued, he was not subject to anything more than a "reasonable" frisk for weapons.
U.S. Circuit Judge Harold Leventhal agreed with the defense, and asked the government to ascertain whether the search was a reasonable patdown for weapons.
If the government can prove the search in which the heroin was found inside a larger bag was merely a search for weapons, Short's conviction may be allowed to stand after a further hearing. If the government does not claim the heroin was found during a search for weapons, the conviction will be reversed, Judge Leventhal said.
Agreeing with Judge Leventhal in the three-judge unanimous opinion were U.S. Circuit Judges Carl McGowan and Rodger Robb.