Getting patted down for weapons sure doesn’t feel like it’s just a pat. It’s embarrassing and it feels like you’re being groped. That’s why there’s limits on when police can do these searches.

Basically, these searches—called Terry searches for the United States Supreme Court case authorizing them—are designed to assure police you’re unarmed. They are really intended for officer safety. They are NOT supposed to let officers rummage through your clothes while they’re still on your body.

But that’s not how it always turns out. It gets really bad when officers reach in your pockets during a pat-down and find criminal evidence, like drugs. Can they do that? Maybe. It hinges on whether the officers can satisfy the United States Supreme Court’s “plain feel doctrine.”

The Plain Feel Doctrine Can Work For You

The Supreme Court outlined this legal protection as part of our Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, in a case called Minnesota v. Dickerson. The Court ruled an officer can reach in a pocket during a pat-down only if an object’s illegal nature is “readily apparent.” I say “readily apparent” is legalese for “obvious.”

Three key factors determine if officers pass the plain feel test:

  1. The Terry search for weapons must be justified in the first place.
  2. The object’s criminal nature must be obvious from just touching or feeling it.
  3. No forbidden touching: extensive touching or manipulation, like squeezing or sliding, is forbidden.

In Dickerson, the Supreme Court ruled discovery of crack cocaine in cellophane was illegal and inadmissible. That officer identified the crack in a suspect’s jacket only after squeezing and sliding the lump.

Uncertainty at Home Means You’ll Need Help

Two South Carolina Court of Appeals cases show the uncertain nature of this defense. State v. Smith, a 1998 case, okayed an officer taking weed from inside a jacket. The officer testified the first time he felt the bulge in the suspect’s jacket, he knew it was weed. The suspect didn’t help himself much. When the officer asked on feeling it if it was weed, the suspect confirmed it.

A 1996 case, State v. Abrams, ruled drugs inadmissible when officers found them in a Tylenol bottle in the suspect’s right front pocket. The Court reasoned officers already determined Abrams to be unarmed when they felt the bottle. Thus, any further search was impermissible.

What do we make of this? “Plain feel” cases can go either way. You’ll need an experienced defense attorney to give yourself hope the rules can work for you.

You May Have a Defense and It’s Worth Fighting For

“Plain feel” can be a defense as much as a justification for officers to search. For the best shot at it working for you, you need a sharp defense lawyer who can make distinctions and find the loopholes in the law for you. At worst, you need help negotiating a better deal, which can be done better by an experienced attorney who can point out how shaky that feel really was.

If you have any questions about your case, call us at (800) 230-1841 to set up a free strategy session to talk about your potential defenses and options.


Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.
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