Terry v. Ohio (1968), the United States Supreme Court recognized one exception to the
warrant requirement established by the Fourth Amendment. The Court held
that a police officer may conduct a brief, warrantless search of an individual’s
person for weapons if the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion
that the “individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating
at close range is armed and presently dangerous to the officer or to others.”
This exception was later extended to protective searches of automobiles in
Michigan v. Long (1983).
Long holds that “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 . . . reasonably warrant the officers in believing
that the suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control
The Court justified this type of warrantless search by arguing that it
is necessary in order to ensure the safety of the officer(s) and others. In
Arizona v. Gant (2009), it is outlined that in the “no-arrest case, the possibility
of access to weapons in the vehicle always exists, since the driver or
passenger will be allowed to return to the vehicle when the interrogation
is completed.” Therefore, a protective search without a warrant
would be appropriate.
However, in a situation where the operator has been placed under arrest
and there are no other passengers that might have access to the vehicle,
a warrantless search is not justified. As explained in
Gant, the exception to the warrant requirement “does not authorize a
vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the
arrestee has been secured” because the operator “cannot access
the interior of the vehicle” and therefore poses no threat to the
officer(s) or others.
So justification for warrantless searches comes down to one thing: safety.
In determining this, the courts rely on “whether a reasonably prudent
man in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety
or that of others was in danger.” (Terry v. Ohio 1968). Factors such as the time of day, the experience of the officers
involved, and suspicious activities by the defendant (including excessive
nervousness), both before and during the stop, are all taken into consideration
when determining if the officer(s) had reasonable suspicion which would
allow for a warrantless search.