The DeSoto County Metro Narcotics Department began receiving complaints that Corwin Hill was selling drugs on the public roadways surrounding the home of his father and, some small distance away, his mother’s home. These tips came primarily from neighbors of the Hills and other community members.
Some tips came via telephone, primarily anonymous but on at least one occasion, a neighbor personally complained at the DeSoto County Metro Narcotics Station.
These reports indicated Hill would park his red 1988 Nissan Sentra on the shoulder of various roads in his neighborhood and sell drugs from the vehicle. Authorities were also informed that Hill had been known to carry a gun during these transactions. Based upon these pieces of information, the narcotics agents began investigating Hill, which included intermittent surveillance.
On February 1, 2001, Agent Charles Terry of Metro Narcotics passed Hill parked on the shoulder of the public road in his red Nissan. Because this was consistent with the information of Hill’s alleged method of operation, Terry turned his vehicle around, pulled up behind Hill and activated the blue police lights of his unmarked vehicle. Hill then drove forward on the shoulder and turned into a private driveway, apparently that of his father, before stopping.
Terry approached Hill and requested Hill exit the vehicle so the agent could pat Hill down for weapons. During the course of the pat down, Hill suddenly lunged back into the vehicle and reached under the driver’s side seat. Fearing Hill was reaching for a weapon, Terry first ordered Hill out of the car then, when Hill refused to comply, physically removed Hill, placed him face down on the ground and handcuffed him.
Terry then searched the car for weapons. During the search, Terry noted a white powdery substance on the driver’s seat. Terry performed a field test which confirmed the presence of cocaine and Hill was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. Hill bonded out of jail later the same day.
The following evening, a confidential informant purchased cocaine from Hill. Hill was convicted of sale of a controlled substance as well as possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to 15 years. On appeal, he argued the search of his car was illegal. MCOA affirmed (for unrelated reasons, they re-sentenced Hill).
Hill contends that Terry did not have probable cause to search and investigate the items in his vehicle without a proper search warrant or an arrest and no valid exceptions to the warrant requirement exist to render the search and seizure of evidence proper.
In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court said that a police officer may approach an individual for purposes of investigating possible criminal behavior, even in the absence of probable cause to arrest. Where the officer has a reasonable belief the individual may be armed and dangerous, the officer may conduct a very limited search of the outer clothing in order to determine whether the individual is, in fact, armed.
Given the information available to Terry, his decision to stop and investigate was reasonable. Hill was parked on the side of the road, in a particular car and in a specific neighborhood, all of which was consistent with the tips Terry had received of Hill’s method of selling drugs. Nor was there any immediately apparent reason for Hill’s presence there or his decision to pull away from Terry once the agent had activated his blue lights.
These same tips led Terry to believe Hill was possibly carrying a concealed weapon. It is not necessary that the officer know with certainty that a suspect is armed before the limited Terry frisk is permissible. If the reasonably prudent man would be warranted in believing his safety or the safety of others is at risk under the circumstances, he may take the allowable steps to assure his personal safety. Having been specifically told Hill often carried a gun, Terry’s belief that a pat-down was necessary was reasonable.
It is this same concern for safety that permits an officer to make a cursory search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle upon a valid Terry inquiry without warrant or probable cause. Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983). If the initial inquiry was valid and the officer is able to articulate specific facts to support his belief the object of the inquiry may be armed, the officer may search those passenger areas of the vehicle where a weapon may be concealed.
As the Supreme Court pointed out if a subject is dangerous, he is no less dangerous simply because he has not yet been arrested. Moreover, if the individual is not arrested and allowed to return to his vehicle, an undiscovered weapon may yet still compromise officer safety.
An officer is not required to ignore contraband discovered in the course of a Terry search although such was not the point–nor could it have validly been–of his search in the first place. When such chance discovery is made, evidence thus discovered does not require suppression.
Terry did not discover the cocaine by exceeding the scope of the permissible search of Hill’s car. He did not discover it by prying into objects which could not have reasonably held a weapon, such as a matchbox or small flat envelope. Terry discovered it dusted on the seat of the car. We agree with the trial court that the evidence was properly seized and its admission at trial was not error.