39. What's the Difference Between a "Search" and a "Frisk?"

  A search is more extensive. An officer conducting a full search can probe extensively for any type of contraband or evidence. A frisk allows officers only to conduct a cursory pat-down and to seize weapons such as guns and knives or objects that the officer can tell from a "plain feel" are contraband. (Minnesota v. Dickerson, U.S. Sup. Ct. 1993.)

  Case Example 1: Officer Mace pulls over a driver who resembles a person wanted for bank robbery. Officer Mace asks the driver to get out of the car, then frisks the driver. The officer feels a soft packet in the driver's back pocket. With the packet still in the driver's pocket, the officer pokes a finger through the packaging into the packet, rubs powder from the packet onto the finger, removes the finger and decides from the powder's appearance and smell that it is an illegal drug. The officer removes the packet and arrests the driver for possession of illegal drugs.

  Question: Are the contents of the packet admissible in evidence?

  Answer: No. The officer had reasonable grounds for detaining the driver, but lacked probable cause to arrest the driver and conduct a full search. Therefore, all the officer could do was frisk the driver and seize either a weapon or contraband "in plain feel." Since the soft packet could not reasonably have been mistaken for a weapon, and the officer had to manipulate the packet before deciding that it contained illegal drugs, the officer had no right to remove it from the driver's pocket.

  Case Example 2: Same case, except that Officer Mace testifies that, "When I frisked the driver, I felt a packet of little pebbles that felt like rock cocaine, so I seized it."

  Question: Is the rock cocaine admissible in evidence?

  Answer: Yes. The officer could tell from "plain feel" that the packet contained illegal drugs, so the seizure is valid. (Note: Police officers are generally very "up" on the law of search and seizure, and know how to testify so that seizures stand up in court.)