Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 15, 2019
Virginia Lawyers Weekly//February 15, 2019//
Despite being conducted in a public area, an officer’s strip search of the passenger of a car stopped for a traffic violation did not violate the passenger’s Fourth Amendment rights because the search was limited in scope and manner and there was a reasonable justification for the officer’s conduct.
On the night of April 18, 2016, Lamar Meyers, the appellant, was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by Donald Moultrie. Police officer Christopher Wycoff observed that the vehicle did not have its tail lights on and signaled Moultrie to pull over. Moultrie stopped the vehicle toward the back of a gas station parking lot. Wycoff observed Moultrie and Meyers shuffling around in the vehicle before he approached.
Wycoff directed Meyers to remain in the vehicle when he asked to get out of the car. Wycoff first directed Moultrie to exit the vehicle so he could be frisked. When Wycoff asked Moultrie if there was anything illegal in the vehicle, Moultrie informed him that Meyers was in possession of a firearm.
Meyers was then asked to exit the vehicle and was handcuffed and patted down. Wycoff removed a folded bill from his pocket that contained a white powder later identified as fentanyl. Wycoff instructed two other officers to search the vehicle for a firearm and when no firearm was found, Wycoff resumed his pat down of Meyers. After feeling what he believed was a gun between Meyers’s legs, Wycoff initiated a strip search and removed the firearm.
The district court denied Meyers’s motion to suppress and Meyers entered a conditional guilty plea and now appeals to this court.
Meyers first claims that Wycoff’s refusal to let him leave the scene during the stop was an unconstitutional seizure. However, it is well settled that it is presumptively reasonable for the passenger of a vehicle to be seized for the duration of a traffic stop. The police do not need to have any reason to believe the passenger is involved in criminal activity for the passenger to be lawfully seized under these circumstances.
The lower court correctly found that the pat downs of Meyers were supported by reasonable suspicion and were not unreasonably intrusive. Moultrie’s statement that Meyers was armed, combined with Wycoff’s observation of Meyers’s movements inside the vehicle, provided Wycoff with reasonable suspicion to conduct the pat down. Moreover, because Wycoff had reason to suspect Meyers was armed, it was reasonable for the officer to continue the pat down despite his failure to discover a firearm after emptying Meyers pockets.
There was likewise no error in the lower court’s conclusion that the strip search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Although the strip search was conducted in a public area, the need to locate and remove the gun providing a compelling safety justification to conduct the strip search immediately. In addition, any other individuals in the parking lot were at least 20 feet away from Meyers when the search occurred, and there were officers standing between them and Meyers, thus limiting Meyers’s exposure. Finally, the search was confined to the area where the gun was located and was not conducted in a manner that posed any unnecessary risk of being harmed.
Although the search could have been performed in a manner that did not require Meyers to be facing other individuals in the parking lot, officers are not required to take every possible measure to minimize the intrusiveness of a search. The efforts at minimization taken by the officers in this case were sufficient to render the search reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
United States v. Meyers, Case No. 18-4020, Jan. 23, 2019. 4th Cir. (Duncan), Appeal from USDC District of South Carolina (Duffy). Cody James Groeber for Appellant; Sean Kittrell for Appellee. VLW 019-2-036. 12 pp.