People frequently ask questions about search and seizure, particularly when the search is not conducted pursuant to a warrant. The Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches. A warrantless search is unreasonable unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. One common exception permits an officer to conduct a limited “pat-down” search of a detained person for weapons. This type of search originated in a case known as Terry vs Ohio.

What facts justify a pat-down search?  Are admissions made by a defendant after a pat-down search admissible at trial if the pat-down is unreasonable? And what about a prior statement made in response to questions by an officer who does not advise the defendant of his right to remain silent? Can that failure impact on a later admission?

These questions were recently considered by the Idaho Supreme Court in State v. Downing, decided December 22, 2017. Downing was the guest in a home occupied by a probationer named Cook. Probation officers went to verify the home as the Cook’s residence, and were told that a third person was also there. One officer asked Downing and Cook to sit on a couch with their hands visible while the other officer quickly “secured” the residence. The probation officer also searched the garage and discovered drug paraphernalia in plain view.

Cook’s behavior apparently went downhill and he became erratic as that search progressed. Although he had been cooperative, Downing stood up and walked in the direction of the front door. He sat back down when asked by the officer. When the probation officer asked about the drug paraphernalia in the garage, Downing admitted he had earlier smoked methamphetamine. He was not warned of his Miranda rights before answering the probation officer.

When local police officers arrived, Downing was warned of his Miranda rights and was then patted-down. Remember that the premise of the pat-down is officer safety, and the limited search is specifically for weapons. The officer felt something in Downing’s pocket and asked what it was. Downing told him it was methamphetamine, and the officer placed him under arrest for possession and another drug crime.

The issue for the Court was whether the district court should have suppressed the drug evidence and Downing’s statements to the local police officer. Downing’s statements to the probation officer before the police officers arrived had been suppressed by the district court. The trial court ruled that the drugs found on Downing (in response to the pat-down) and his statement to the officer that it was meth, not a weapon, were admissible.

The Supreme Court held that the pat-down search of Downing by the officer violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. The Court found that the totality of the circumstances did not  support a finding that the officer had the “required reasonable articulable suspicion particularized as to Downing.” In other words – the facts simply did not support the conclusion he was armed and dangerous to the officer. The pat-down search was therefore unreasonable and any evidence derived from that search was inadmissible, so the drugs get suppressed.

The admissions to the officer were not admissible because there was no attenuation between the unreasonable search and the admissions by Downing.The admissions, like the drugs, flowed directly from the illegal pat-down search.

The purpose of the Terry stop and frisk – or pat-down search – is really officer safety. If an officer feels something during the pat-down search that is not a weapon, evidence seized without a warrant or admissions flowing from the warrantless search may be suppressed by the court and excluded at trial. Here the police officer found the drugs after receiving permission to search from Downing, but his consent to search his pocket flowed from his earlier admission that he had smoked methamphetamine before the officers arrived. That statement to the probation officers was not admissible because there had been no Miranda warning. His subsequent admission to the local police flowed directly from the prior illegal search.

If your case involves a search, a subsequent admission of guilt (“yes that is meth in my pocket”), or the seizure of evidence (the meth), you may have a viable motion to suppress all of the above. Check out the Downing decision for a great tutorial on these issues.