Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Johnson: Officers Exceeded Lawful Scope of Pat Down by Reaching into Pocket to Seize Ammunition and Holster

In United States v. Johnson, No. 16-15690 (Duffey (N.D. Ga.), Jordan, Jill Pryor), the Court reversed the denial of the motion to suppress evidence obtained during a Terry stop.

The Court first concluded that there was reasonable suspicion to justify the pat down of the defendant.  Officers had received a report of a burglary around 4am in a high-crime area, the defendant fit the description of the burglar and was the only person in the area, and the officers reasonably believed that he posed a threat to safety, since burglaries often involve weapons.

The Court, however, concluded that the officers exceeded the lawful scope of the pat down by reaching into the defendant's front pocket in order to retrieve a single round of ammunition and a nylon holster.  That was so because pat downs under Terry are limited to determine whether the defendant has a weapon or contraband.  Here, there was no dispute that the officer did not believe the objects to be contraband or a weapon.  The Court rejected the government's argument that it could retrieve any item identified during a garment pat down.  The Court ultimately held that, on the particular facts of the case, the presence of a single round of ammunition--without facts supporting the presence, or reasonable expectation of the presence, of a firearm--was insufficient to justify the seizure of the bullet and holster from the defendant's pocket.