Can Police Open Your Car Door During a Traffic Stop?
In McHam v. State, a case of first impression, the South Carolina Supreme Court was asked to decide whether an officer may open a car door during a valid traffic stop without violating the 4th Amendment against unreasonable search and seizures.
What we do know is that an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop “because the danger to an officer from a traffic stop is likely to be greater when there are passengers in addition to the driver in the stopped car. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, (1977). However, an officer opening the car door is different and triggers a Fourth Amendment analysis.
McHam approached a traffic safety checkpoint with one passenger in the front seat. Three officers were present in marked cruisers. A Trooper approached and asked for license, registration, and proof of insurance. McHam provided his license but he and his passenger began looking in various places for the registration and insurance. The trooper could not see their hands so he opened the passenger side door and immediately saw a baggie of crack cocaine between the seat and passenger side door. A search of the vehicle resulted in police finding cocaine, and cash. McHam was charged with trafficking cocaine and at trial was convicted and sentenced to 25 years.
Officer safety can be a valid justification for opening the door of an occupied vehicle if: (1) whether the act constituted a search; and (2) whether any search was nevertheless justified under the 4th Amendment.
First Point – Good News
As to the first point, police opening a door of an occupied vehicle is a search. “Even a small intrusion” can be an unlawful search under the 4th Amendment. Arizona v. Hicks, (1987). Even an officers act of sticking his head in a slightly ajar sliding door of a windowless cargo van is a search. See Commonwealth v. Podgurski.
Second Point – Bad News
Is the search justified by an exception to the warrant requirement? If the conduct is a search then we analyze if it was justified. Warrantless searches and seizures are unreasonable absent a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. State v. Wright. These exceptions include:
- Search incident to a lawful arrest;
- Hot pursuit;
- Stop and frisk;
- Automobile exception;
- Plain view doctrine;
- Consent; and
See State v. Dupree.
Officer safety has been recognized as a substantial basis as well. See Mimms, observing the governmental interest in officer safety during a traffic stop is substantial.
In this case the court found that “officer safety” was a legitimate basis because it was in a dimly lit area, the presence of more than one occupant in the vehicle, and there was only one officer approaching the vehicle at the time. Therefore the search was lawful and the drugs were admissible evidence.
What’s interesting about this factual analysis is that the “dimly lit” area was selected by police because it was “their safety checkpoint” which in turn meant that there were numerous other police vehicles and officers within a stones throw of McHam’s vehicle, clearly outnumbering him and his passenger. Sometimes a square peg does fit in a round hole.