In 2012, Deputy John Putnam was working interdiction on I-59 in Jones County. While stationary, he spotted a vehicle traveling faster than the others and got behind the vehicle to pace it. He determined through pacing that the vehicle, which contained three people, was speeding and pulled it over.
The driver appeared nervous and avoided eye contact so he asked him to step out of the vehicle. He conducted a Terry frisk (nothing found) and then asked the driver where he was going. The driver stated that Robert Casey and Casey’s mother-in-law were in the vehicle. They were taking the mother-in-law to Hattiesburg and were then returning to Georgia. He also said he grew up with Casey in Gulfport. The driver had prior weapons and felony drug trafficking charges.
He then got Casey out of the car who was shaking and could barely speak. Casey told the officer that he had not known the driver that long and that they would be staying in Hattiesburg for a while. When the officer attempted a Terry frisk of Casey, Casey attempted to put his hands down his pants. Casey was then placed in handcuffs and Putnam felt what he believed to be a firearm in the inner thigh of Casey. The officer then retrieved a vacuum sealed very hard green leafy substance as well as a compressed white powdery substance from the inner thigh area of Casey.
Casey was convicted of possession of cocaine and was sentenced to 20 years. On appeal, he argued that 1) there was no probable cause for the stop, 2) there was no reasonable suspicion for a Terry frisk, and 3) the officer’s frisk exceeded what is allowed under Terry. MSC affirmed.
A. Probable cause for stop
In Martin, we said that when a police officer personally observes a driver commit what he reasonably believes is a traffic violation, he then has probable cause to stop the vehicle. The trial court found that Putnam was credible and that Putnam’s testimony regarding the vehicle’s exceeding the speed limit was substantiated by GPS data depicted on the patrol car’s camera system as Putnam followed the vehicle.
B. Reasonable suspicion for Terry frisk
To justify a pat down for weapons the officer need not be absolutely certain that the individual is armed; the issue is whether a reasonably prudent man in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger.
Here, Putnam based his suspicions and safety concerns on 1) driver and Casey’s nervous behavior, 2) Casey’s two statements that contradicted driver’s statements, and 3) driver’s disclosure that he had prior felony drug trafficking and weapons charges. Based on these facts, we find that a reasonably prudent officer would be justified in patting Casey down for weapons.
C. Exceeded scope of Terry frisk
In Gales, this court stated that the rationale underlying the Terry frisk is the protection of the officer. To that effect, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the frisk must therefore be confined in scope to an intrusion reasonably designed to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer. When an object is soft or does not reasonably resemble a weapon, the Terry analysis does not justify removing it from the suspect’s clothing and searching it.
Casey’s argument seemingly ignores the circumstances that led to the retrieval of the drugs. First, as Putnam began his first attempt at a weapons pat down, Casey suddenly took his hand off the back windshield and reached into his pants pocket. This action required Putnam to place Casey in handcuffs so that Putnam could attempt to complete the pat down in a safer manner.
Putnam then continued with the pat down, and when he patted Casey’s right thigh for a weapon, Putnam felt an object that he thought may have been a weapon. But Putnam was not able to dispel his suspicions of a weapon because just as Putnam felt what he believed to be a weapon, Casey resisted and attempted to pull away.
In White, MCOA noted that the defendant’s evasive behavior during a weapons pat down justified a more intrusive search of the defendant’s jacket that ultimately led to the discovery of cocaine. We find the Court of Appeals’ reasoning persuasive and analogous to the facts of this case.
Additionally, Putnam’s belief that the object may have been a weapon was not unreasonable. Putnam did not describe the object as small and soft; rather, Putnam felt an object that he said was as hard as wood hidden next to Casey’s right thigh. Therefore, we find that Putnam’s actions were justified in light of Casey’s resistance and the reasonable belief that the hard, compressed object may have been a weapon.