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Minnesota Supreme Court Blocks Suspicionless Searches During Traffic Stops
Comentary on: Minnesota vs Mustafaa Naji Fort (C2-01-1732)
by Earth
May 9, 2003
Minnesota vs Mustafaa Naji Fort
(C2-01-1732)
[Decided May 1, 2003]
In a decision very reminiscent of the New Jersey Supreme Court last year (2002) which banned suspicionless 'consent searches' in New Jersey, the Minnesota Supreme Court has held that state law enforcement officers in Minnesota are no longer allowed to conduct 'consent searches' during routine traffic stops.

A 'consent search' is the term used for searches which require a citizen to implicitly or explictly give their consent to an officer to search them. The traditional standard for reasonable police behaviour is that they have to have 'reasonable, articulable suspicion' (See Note) of some crime before they are allowed to stop someone (for 5-20 minutes) and do a "terry" weapons patdown / search. In order to constitutionally conduct a full search (such as reaching inside pocket), an officer is required to have "probable cause" for believing the person is engaged in criminal activity. Court decisions around the US have varied as to how these standards apply to individuals who are stopped during traffic stops.

Non-traffic-related searches and searches incident to traffic stops are somewhat different, with police given more latitude to question and pat people down whom they have already stopped for a traffic violation. The current standard practice in much of the US is that, once you are stopped during a traffic violation, police are given fairly broad latitude to look for evidence of other crimes. People are routinely asked to step out of their cars, asked to open their trunk, asked whether they are carrying any illegal drugs or weapons, patted down in so called "weapons searches", asked to give the officers permission to search their car or bags, call in drug-sniffing dogs to check for controlled substances, etc. In most jurisdictions, officers have been considered within their authority to conduct a 'weapons search' once the driver has been stopped for a traffic violation if there is any reason to think the person might be dangerous or involved in crime (drunk, seems nervous). Also, in most jurisdictions, officers are free to ask for "consent" to pat down drivers and passengers without any need for suspicion or cause.

"...we conclude that in the absence of reasonable, articulable suspicion a consent-based search obtained by exploitation of a routine traffic stop that exceeds the scope of the stop's underlying justification is invalid." MN v Fort, c2-01-1732
The boundaries of what is acceptable for officers to do when someone is stopped for a routine traffic violation (speeding, broken tail light or other equipment failure tickets, etc) has not been clearly established in most states. When it comes to answering questions and following simple 'requests', the assumption is that if an individual does not clearly resist, they are tacitly consenting to the interaction with the officer. It is also considered acceptable in most jurisdictions for an officer to request to search a vehicle or person with no suspicion of any wrong doing.

One of the primary problem with this type of "consent" is that few people feel free to actually say no and many citizens do not even realize they have the right to say no. It is almost always an intimidating experience to be stopped by the police under any circumstance. The court describes in this case:
An officer in full uniform, including flashlight, gun, handcuffs, and mace, approached the passenger's side of the vehicle while the squad car lights continued to flash and asked Fort to exit the vehicle. The officer then escorted Fort to the squad car and proceeded to ask him a series of questions. The questions were particularly intrusive given that they were aimed at soliciting evidence of drugs and weapons. On the facts presented, we conclude that, because an objectively reasonable person would not feel free to disregard the police officer's questions or to terminate the encounter, Fort was seized.
(MN v Fort, May 1, 2003)
The Minnesota Supreme Court had previously ruled in MN v Wiegand (645 N.W.2d 125, 135 (Minn. 2002)) that police were not allowed to bring in drug-sniffing dogs to search a vehicle after a traffic stop unless there is "reasonable, articulable suspicion of drug-related criminal activity". The decision in MN v Fort simply expands the ban on suspicionless detainments to include other types of searches beyond the specific drug-dog case in Wiegand.

This decision, and the NJ Supreme Court Decision before it, make a very clear statement that police officers are not allowed to detain citizens for more than is appropriate to the traffic violation for which they have been stopped, unless they have clearly articulable (describable) reason to think some other specific crime has been committed.

Because the Minnesota Supreme Court based their decision on the Minnesota Constitution and Minnesota state cases, this decision is not reviewable by the US Supreme Court and cannot be overturned.


Other related issues: California Higway Patrol Agrees to Stop Consent Searches
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) agreed to stop using consent searches and certain types of drug-pretext traffic stops as part of a settlement of a lawsuit in February 2003. Although this involves a voluntary action by only one police organization in the state and does not require city or other state police from using these tactics for arrests, this settlement is important because it established the fact that racial profiling and inappropriate consent searches were being used to disproportionally target minority groups.

Links about this settlement:

Notes:

Definition of "Reasonable, articulable suspicion"
This standard for when a police officer may choose to detain someone, is known as the Terry Standard from a case in 1968 [Terry v Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968)] in which the Federal Supreme Court ruled that police had the right to detain and frisk individuals for weapons if they had "reasonable" suspicion that the individual is involved in a crime. The standard which the Supreme Court developed has become a standard in law across the United States. Police are expected to have a suspicion they can describe in words ("articulable") which is "reasonable". What is 'reasonable' is up to the judge hearing the case. "Officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, when taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion." For more information see: http://currentstudents.law.miami.edu/outlines/crim_pro_out.html