Seizure During MV Stop Continues until Cops Say, “Get Out of Here!” – Arizona v. Johnson

Today’s United States Supreme Court holding in Arizona v. Johnson clarifies the law related to the seizure of persons in a motor vehicle during a traffic stop. In the Johnson case, the investigating police officer developed a reasonable suspicion that the petitioner was armed. In order to further her investigation, she directed him to leave the vehicle and spoke to him to gather intelligence related to gang activity. A pat-down frisk of his person led to the recovery of an illegal firearm.

The petitioner’s position was that the seizure of his person during the traffic stop ended when he was asked to exit the vehicle to speak with the officer. According to the petitioner, his conversation with the officer was based upon a voluntary field inquiry, an encounter that would not normally justify a pat-down search for weapons.

In rejecting this theory, the Supreme Court reasoned as follows:

A lawful roadside stop begins when a vehicle is pulled over for investigation of a traffic violation. The temporary seizure of driver and passengers ordinarily continues, and remains reasonable, for the duration of the stop. Normally, the stop ends when the police have no further need to control the scene, and inform the driver and passengers they are free to leave.. An officer’s inquiries into matters unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop, this Court has made plain, do not convert the encounter into something other than a lawful seizure, so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop.

In sum, 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. Nothing occurred in this case that would have conveyed to the petitioner that, prior to the frisk, the traffic stop had ended or that he was otherwise free “to depart without police permission.” The investigating officer surely was not constitutionally required to give Johnson an opportunity to depart the scene after he exited the vehicle without first ensuring that, in so doing, she was not permitting a dangerous person to get behind her.

Download a copy of Arizona v. Johnson

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