The Dickerson case is sponsored by: Rosie Ruiz, Ben Johnson, Milli Vanilli, Enron, Bernie Madoff, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and breast implants … but not in that order.

Minnesota v. Dickerson

508 U.S. 366 (1993)

U.S. Supreme Court

Decided: June 7, 1993

On Thursday November 9, 1989 Minnesota Police [hereinafter MPD] Officer Vernon Rose and Officer Bruce Johnson were on patrol and observed Mr. Timothy Dickerson exit 1030 Morgan Avenue North, Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Officer Rose was a fourteen-year veteran of MPD with an extensive background in narcotics investigations to include search warrants at 1030 Morgan Avenue North.  As Mr. Dickerson walked out of the building and down the first step, he observed the officers observing him.  With a deer-in-the-headlight look Mr. Dickerson abruptly turned to his right and walked on the curved sidewalk which is north and then east to the rear of the building.  The officers drove around behind the building, detained, patted down and arrested Mr. Dickerson for Possession of Crack Cocaine.

Mr. Dickerson walked out of 1030 Morgan Avenue North and observed the cruiser.  He turned right and walked Northbound then Eastbound to the rear of the apartment where he was detained, patted down and arrested by Officer Rose.

The Terry doctrine is a two-part test, see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) and Objectively Reasonable Launches June 10, 2020.  The first is whether the suspect is involved in criminal activity.  Officer Rose testified that 1030 Morgan Avenue North Apartment building is a notorious crack house where he has made several arrests either in or around the building.  These facts tethered to Mr. Dickerson’s deer-in-the-headlight look and abrupt change of direction provided enough Reasonable Suspicion to detain him.

The second part of the Terry test is whether the suspect is presently armed and dangerous.  Those involved in the sale of narcotics are often armed to protect their interests.  Officer Rose patted down Mr. Dickerson who was wearing a nylon jacket.  As Officer Rose patted down the pocket, this is an excerpt from the Minnesota Court of Appeals “Rose felt a small lump in the front pocket of Dickerson’s nylon jacket.  He examined the lump through the nylon with his fingers.  Later he claimed that based upon his experience he knew immediately the lump was crack cocaine tied in cellophane wrap.  He seized the crack cocaine and arrested Dickerson, Rose never thought the lump was a weapon.” State v. Dickerson, 469 N.W.2d 462 (1991)

Mr. Dickerson was tried and convicted at trial level. The appellate court quoted above overturned the conviction, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the appellate court. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that Officer Rose seizure of the contraband was unlawful.  The U.S. Supreme Court held “If a police officer lawfully pats down a suspect’s outer clothing and feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity immediately apparent, there has been no invasion of the suspect’s privacy beyond that already authorized by the officer’s search for weapons; if the object is contraband, its warrantless seizure would be justified.”.  Id at 375-376.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The most important point of Dickerson is that it applies to NON-THREATENING contraband. During a lawful Terry patdown, if an officer feels an object that may be a weapon or used as a weapon, removal of that object is reasonable, and Dickerson is not applicable.  Most commonly, non-threatening contraband is narcotics.
  1. The Fourth Amendment was established to limit the government’s scope of intrusion. That is EXACTLY what occurred here, the overstepping of law enforcement searches. When law enforcement has to manipulate non-threatening contraband the officer is also manipulating the Terry doctrine.  Which is to say that the doctrine is though legally sound is not practically sound.  Officers will not be able to lawfully use the doctrine during a patdown.
  1. Officers should avoid using the Plain Feel doctrine. If Officer Rose was testifying and given four small cloth bags, only one of which contained Mr. Dickerson’s crack and the other three contained rocks from the rear of 1030 Morgan Avenue North apartment building (or anywhere else), there is no way he, you or I could determine that the crack is ‘immediately apparent’ in one of the cloth bags.  That is why this case is brought to you by Rosie Ruiz, Ben Johnson, Milli Vanilli, Enron, Bernie Madoff, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and breast implants … this case is fake (!) – don’t use the Plain Feel doctrine to identify non-threatening contraband.

Law enforcement remains THE Hardest Job In America.

Does your agency have regular training on searches and pat downs?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.