Federal court: Police can frisk anyone at stops, even those with carry permits

A panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday decided 12-4 that an officer is justified in searching a person if they suspect the individual has a weapon, even if that person may be legally armed.

The 58-page ruling sides with a lower court decision in the case of Shaquille Montel Robinson, who was stopped and searched by police in West Virginia for not wearing a seatbelt and found with a gun in his pocket. Robinson, a felon, had sought to have the evidence that he was armed suppressed, arguing the gun was found through an illegal search that violated his Fourth Amendment rights, citing that as far as the officers knew he could have had a permit and been legally armed.

“We reject Robinson’s argument and affirm, concluding that an officer who makes a lawful traffic stop and who has a reasonable suspicion that one of the automobile’s occupants is armed may frisk that individual for the officer’s protection and the safety of everyone on the scene,” wrote Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, an appointment by President Reagan, for the majority.

“It is also inconsequential that the passenger may have had a permit to carry the concealed firearm,” noted Niemeyer.

Robinson was a passenger in a car stopped by police in 2014 for seatbelt violations after a tip that a man in an area known for drug trafficking had a loaded gun in his pocket. When an officer asked him if he had any weapons upon exiting the car, Robinson reportedly gave the officer an “‘oh, crap’ look” but did not respond, to which he was instructed to put his hands on the car and was frisked. It was only after a weapon was recovered that the officer remembered from a previous interaction with Robinson that he was a felon and arrested him for possession of an illegal firearm.

While a District Court refused the argument that Robinson was the victim of an unlawful search, a 2-1 panel of the 4th Circuit was compelled to rule that he was, and vacated both the lower court’s decision and his subsequent 37-month prison sentence. Robinson’s argument to the court was that the officer’s frisk was not justified by any reasonable suspicion that he was dangerous and that police did not know if he was licensed to carry a gun or not.

“[H]e fails to recognize that traffic stops alone are inherently dangerous for police officers,” noted Niemeyer.

Judge Pamela A. Harris, an appointment by President Obama, wrote for the dissent, arguing the majority’s call meant a law-abiding person who had “the misfortune to be stopped for a traffic violation or other minor infraction – he opens himself up to being frisked and disarmed” and that “[B]y equating ‘armed’ with ‘dangerous’ even in states where the carrying of guns is widely permitted, the majority’s rule has the effect of depriving countless law-abiding citizens of what otherwise would be their Fourth Amendment and other constitutional rights.”

The decision creates a split in the courts due to a 2015 ruling from the U.S. 6th Circuit that held Toledo, Ohio police went too far in searching an armed gun owner who was legally open carrying, setting it up for the possibility of a review by the Supreme Court.