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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

When your detainee was the recent occupant of a vehicle, you may "frisk" the vehicle for weapons with the same lower level of reasonable suspicion that there may be a weapon inside (looking into places and containers that might conceal a weapon). "The search of the passenger compartment of an automobile, limited to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden, is permissible if the police officer possesses a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the officer in believing that the suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons." (Michigan v. Long)

Occupant Control During Search Warrant Service

Even non-suspects who are present during service of a search warrant may be detained. "The risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation. We hold that a warrant to search carries with it the limited authority to detain the occupants while a proper search is conducted." (Michigan v. Summers)

If handcuffing is necessary, "Inherent in the authorization to detain an occupant of the place to be searched is the authority to use reasonable force to effectuate the detention. In such inherently dangerous situations, the use of handcuffs minimizes the risk of harm to both officers and occupants." (Muehler v. Mena)

Safety Sweep

Once you're lawfully inside a residence, your articulable suspicion that there may be a potential assailant present justifies a safety sweep of the premises. "Unlike an encounter on the street or along a highway, an in-home arrest puts the officer at the disadvantage of being on his adversary's 'turf.' An ambush in a confined setting of unknown configuration is more to be feared than it is in open, more familiar settings. The Fourth Amendment permits a properly limited protective sweep when the searching officer possesses a reasonable belief that the area harbors a dangerous individual." (Maryland v. Buie)

Arrestee Control

Once a person has been lawfully arrested, you may accompany him wherever he goes (including into his house). "Every arrest must be presumed to present a risk of danger to the arresting officer. The officer's need to ensure his own safety is compelling. We hold, therefore, that it is not unreasonable for a police officer to routinely monitor the movements of an arrested person, as his judgment dictates, following the arrest." (Washington v. Chrisman)

Deadly Force

Where a dangerous criminal is suspected, the reasonable use of deadly force to prevent serious injury or death to you or to others, or to prevent escape, does not violate the Fourth Amendment. "Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given." (Tennessee v. Garner)

If a vehicle pursuit endangers pursuing officers or other motorists or bystanders, tactics to end the pursuit may include steps that raise fatal risks for the offender. "A police officer's attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death." (Scott v. Harris)

Custodial Interrogation Outside Miranda

If you need to ask questions of a person in custody in order to neutralize an immediate threat to officer safety or public safety, Miranda does not apply. "The need for answers in a situation posing a threat to the public safety outweighs the need for Miranda warnings. An objectively reasonable need to protect the police or the public from any immediate danger [justifies a Miranda exception]. Police officers can and will distinguish almost instinctively between questions necessary to secure their own safety or the safety of the public and questions designed solely to elicit testimonial evidence from the suspect." (New York v. Quarles)


Neither the prospect of suppression of evidence nor the hazard of civil liability should cause you to take unwise chances with your safety. "Certainly, it would be unreasonable to require that police officers take unnecessary risks in the performance of their duties." (Terry v. Ohio)

Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."

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