Officer Safety Trumps Passenger Privacy

Date01 September 2009
Published date01 September 2009
Subject MatterArticles
Officer Safety Trumps Passenger
Arizona v. Johnson (2009)
Darrell L. Ross
Jill Joline Myers
Department of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration
In a unanimous 2009 opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Fourth
Amendment authorizes officers to frisk vehicle occupants during a traffic stop if there is
reasonable suspicion to believe that the person is armed and dangerous. Situations
reasonably suggesting the possible presence of weapons by any or all seized persons during
legitimate traffic stops now affirmatively allow an immediate show of authority to neutralize
the potential danger. The decision resulted from the court’s balancing interests under the
Reasonableness Clause of the Fourth Amendment. The nature and extent of the passenger’s
privacy interest in bodily integrity was weighed against the government’s interest in officer
safety. Officer safety trumped passenger privacy. Although there are those who would claim
that the current decision is but another step toward dissipating the Bill of Rights provision as
it relates to matters involving the automobile, the decision is more of an evolution than an
outright abandonment (Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 1971). The Fourth Amendment
mandates that all searches and seizure be reasonable. This article discusses the evolution of
Fourth Amendment law as it relates to frisks involving vehicles and its occupants. This
research traces the evolution of these frisks from its earliest roots under Carroll v. United
States (1925), to its inception under Terry v. Ohio (1968) and finally, to the most recent
decision, Arizona v. Johnson (2009). Society’s privacy interests and police officers’ safety
interests are explored from a practical and workable context such that an appropriate balance
of conduct may result when conducting legitimate traffic encounters.
Keywords: traffic stops; passenger frisk; officer safety; stop and frisk
Twice during the current 2008–2009 term, the Supreme Court of the United States revis-
ited the authority of police to conduct searches of persons connected to automobiles. One
case involved the search of a vehicle incident to the arrest of the occupant (Arizona v. Gant,
2009) and the other (Arizona v. Johnson, 2009) discussed herein involved the frisking of a
passenger during a traffic encounter. Both cases invoke significant concern to law enforce-
ment as traffic-related incidents account for most encounters between police and citizens.
Authors’ Note: Please address correspondence to Darrell L. Ross, School of Law Enforcement and Justice
Administration, Western Illinois University Macomb, IL 61455; e-mail:
Criminal Justice Review
Volume 34 Number 3
September 2009 468-481
#2009 Georgia State University
Research Foundation, Inc.
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