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Can Police Search You During a Traffic Stop in Massachusetts

The Fourth Amendment is a very important right. However, it is often overshadowed by its many, many, exceptions. The Massachusetts Appellate Court recently examined a patfrisk case stemming from a motor vehicle stop. At this stop, the highly dangerous drug fentanyl was found. Fentanyl is often so potent that 3 milligrams is enough to kill a grown man. To put this into perspective, 3 milligrams of fentanyl is difficult to see with the naked eye. The Massachusetts Appellate Court looked at a motion to suppress fentanyl seized during a traffic stop in Commonwealth v. Wade

What happened in the Wade case?

Defendant Wade allegedly sped past a state trooper at 11 pm while the officer was pulled over on the side of the road conducting another stop. Wade was with four other passengers. Officers claimed that the car smelled like marijuana. In addition, the driver did not have a license or registration. Officer also said they found it suspicious that one passenger had his hood up and his hand in his pockets. The officer demanded he remove his hand from his pockets but the passenger did not. Other passengers were reaching in their pants and pockets. Wade put his hands in his waistband. The officers then pulled Wade out of the car and searched him. They found a pill bottle with the name removed. The fentanyl was found in the bottle.

Wade filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was seized improperly. 

A patfrisk can be justified in certain circumstances. A concern for officer safety is one such justification. The officers here claimed that they feared for their safety because the car was driving in an unsafe manner and the officers were outnumbered by the passengers in the car. The driver could not produce his license or registration, and the other passengers acted in a manner that was consistent with concealing a weapon. 

The frisk was found to be lawful, because of officer safety concerns. However, a patfrisk only allows for officers to feel on the outside of the clothing. The officers were able to go under the clothing and find the pill bottle because under the plain feel doctrine, during a lawful patfrisk the officer can remove an item he reasonably believes to be contraband, based on his professional training. An object may be seized if the frisking officer has probable cause to believe in its

incriminating character. The police here, based on the location of the pill bottle, had reason to believe it contained contraband. 

The Massachusetts Appellate Court ultimately affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress. This case is one of many where a patfrisk and contraband found from it was lawfully seized. It is important to know that your rights are especially vulnerable when you are in a vehicle, even if you are a passenger. If the officer has probable cause and fears for his safety, you can be searched. 

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