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Departments : Point of Law

Accent on Officer Safety

When it comes to protecting yourself in dangerous situations, the Supreme Court has your back.

September 20, 2011  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Nobody knows why, but at the same time that serious crime rates have fallen substantially, dangerous and deadly attacks on law enforcement officers have risen sharply. In 2010, according to figures posted by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, on-duty officer fatalities increased 40 percent over the year before, and so far this year, the total is 14 percent higher than last year's shocking level. Nearly 60,000 officers are assaulted each year, with about one-third of those attacks resulting in injuries, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

Given the ever-present risks to your survival, it's important for you to know that in numerous decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has created special rules to allow you to investigate crimes and apprehend suspects without undue restrictions that jeopardize your safety. Being aware of these cases can help you avoid taking chances you don't have to take.

Ordering Vehicle Occupants to Get Out

At a lawful traffic stop, you need not take a chance that occupants may have access to concealed weapons inside the vehicle. You have the option to order everyone out (safety and control permitting). You do not have to give any justification for doing so. "It appears that a significant percentage of murders of police officers occur when the officers are making traffic stops. We hold that once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment." (Pennsylvania v. Mimms) Also, "An officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop." (Maryland v. Wilson)

Once occupants are outside, you have the right to detain them in place, without them moving around behind you. "No one in the car is free to leave without police permission." (Brendlin v. California) "A traffic stop of a car communicates to a reasonable passenger that he or she is not free to terminate the encounter with the police and move about at will." (Arizona v. Johnson)

Weapons Frisk

Although most searches require "probable cause," you may pat down the outer clothing of a person you have lawfully detained whenever you have only the lower level of "reasonable suspicion" that he is armed and dangerous. "We cannot blind ourselves to the need for law enforcement officers to protect themselves and other prospective victims of violence in situations where they may lack probable cause for arrest." (Terry v. Ohio)

Reasonable suspicion may be based on less information, of a less-reliable nature, than PC. (Alabama v. White)

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