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Reasonable Suspicion – Frisk – Scope: Purse

State v. Tamara C. Limon, 2008 WI App 77, PFR filed 5/7/08
For Limon: Wm. Tyroler, SPD, Milwaukee Appellate; Lisa A. Packard, Law Student


¶36      In her final argument, Limon argues that when the officer opened her purse, the search exceeded the scope of a valid weapons frisk under Terry. Although Terry provides only for an officer “to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing … in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him,” id., 392 U.S. at 30, we hold that under these circumstances the search was properly broadened to encompass the opening of Limon’s purse. Here, again, we agree with the trial court that Limon’s purse was essentially an extension of her person where the purse was accessible by her, and because the officers were concerned for their safety, “they should be able to protect themselves to the extent that if they are concerned, they should be able to find if there are weapons on the person or close enough to the person where that person can cause harm to the officer.” See generally Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1034-35, 1047 (1983) (expanding Terry protective search for weapons to encompass area beyond the person so as to justify search of passenger compartment of vehicle and further noting that “ Terry need not be read as restricting the preventative search to the person of the detained suspect”).

¶37      Limon disagrees and suggests that the officers should have patted down her purse as opposed to “diving into it.” The record is silent, however, regarding whether Limon’s purse was cloth, leather, vinyl, or some other material, making it unclear whether a pat-down would have been worthwhile.

The burden is on the State to show necessity for the frisk, so you’d think a silent record would work to Limon’s advantage. No such luck. (The nature of the purse is an important detail, and if its outer walls would accommodate a frisk, then you’ve got a potentially critical point of distinction.) The court relies (¶38) on State v. Martin D. Triplett, 2005 WI App 255 for the idea that the police are entitled to undertake an effective frisk. But in that case, the cop shook Triplett’s waistband, and the court was careful to note that this action was not only “highly similar” and “stayed within the bounds ofTerry”; but also that it arguably “intruded less upon the sanctity of Triplett’s person than a traditional patdown.” Can you really say the same about a fishing expedition into someone’s purse? The court also dismisses privacy concerns, but isn’t a purse generally the repository of very private items? The court, in this respect, purports to distinguish on its facts a recent foreign case, In re Tiffany O., 174 P.3d 282 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2007), ¶40 n. 8. That authority, however, contains the following statement of principle that isn’t fact-contingent (but instead assigns to a purse the general entitlement to privacy interests that the court of appeals seemingly rejects out of hand):

¶12 But the State must also justify the immediate search of the purse after it was in Officer Stewart’s control. After the purse’s seizure, the danger of Appellant using something in it to harm herself or others was removed. Generally, once a purse is no longer in its owner’s possession, a protective search of the purse is not justified pursuant to TerrySee State v. Schellhorn, 769 P.2d 221, 223 (Or. Ct. App. 1989) (“[O]nce the officer had seized the purse, he no longer had any reason to believe that it still posed an immediate threat to him.”); People v. Stewart, 420 N.W.2d 180, 181-82 (Mich. Ct. App. 1988) (holding that the search of purses could not be justified as a protective search for weapons when police had control of the purses); State v. Wynne, 552 N.W.2d 218, 222 (Minn. 1996) (“[W]e fail to understand how the purse remained a threat to officers when it had been taken away from its owner.”).

Also see Speten v. State, 2008 WY 63 (upholding Terry frisk of purse, under “automatic companion” rule [arrestee’s companion may be subject to frisk], but without discussion of whether within permissible scope of frisk); State v. Morgan, OR App No. A134236, 3/19/09 (search of purse supported by objectively reasonable belief defendant reaching for weapon, where “grabbed the purse, nervously backed away from the officer, and attempted to reach or did actually reach inside it, actions that came as a surprise to Lance”).


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