Arizona v. Johnson

RESPONDENT:Lemon Montrea Johnson
LOCATION:Railroad Shops

DOCKET NO.: 07-1122
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 555 US 323 (2009)
GRANTED: Jun 23, 2008
ARGUED: Dec 09, 2008
DECIDED: Jan 26, 2009

Andrew J. Pincus – argued the cause for the respondent
Joseph L. Parkhurst – argued the cause for the petitioner
Toby J. Heytens – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner

Facts of the case

Lemon Johnson was riding in the backseat of a car when it was pulled over by the state police in Sugar Hill, Arizona. The officers had scanned the license of the car and found that it had a “mandatory insurance suspension.” Although the stop was solely predicated on the suspended license, the officers began to question the car’s occupants, including Johnson, about gang activity in the area. Based on certain circumstantial evidence, such as Johnson’s possession of a police scanner, the officers asked Johnson to exit the car so that they could question him further. Although Johnson was free to stay in the car, he voluntarily exited and a subsequent search of his person by the officers revealed a handgun and a small amount of marijuana. Based on evidence obtained during this search, Johnson was convicted in Arizona state court of (1) the unlawful possession of a weapon as a prohibited possessor and (2) possession of marijuana. Johnson appealed, arguing that the evidence recovered from the search should have been suppressed because the officers did not have probable cause to search him at the time of his arrest and therefore did so in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals of Arizona agreed with Johnson and reversed his conviction and sentence. The court found that the officers had no reason to believe that Johnson was involved in any criminal activity when he was searched. The officers requested that Johnson step out of the car to discuss gang activity, not because the officers feared that their safety was threatened, thus it was part of a consensual encounter between the officers and Johnson. Therefore, the court said, the officers’ subsequent search of Johnson was illegal and unconstitutional.


Do officers violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures when, after making a routine traffic stop, they search an individual who is consensually conversing with those officers?

Media for Arizona v. Johnson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 09, 2008 in Arizona v. Johnson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 26, 2009 in Arizona v. Johnson

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in case 07-1122, Arizona versus Johnson.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns the authority of police officers to stop and frisk a passenger in a motor vehicle temporarily seized upon police detection of a traffic infraction.

In a pathmarking 1968 decision, Terry v. Ohio, this Court considered whether in the absence of a warrant to a course therefore, the police may temporarily stop an individual for questioning and frisk him or her for weapons.

Terry upheld stop and frisk as a constitutionally permissible police practice, one that does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures if two conditions are met.

First, the investigatory stop must be lawful, that requirement is met in an on-the-street encounter when the police officer reasonably suspects that the person apprehended is committing or has committed a criminal offense.

Second, to proceed from a stop to a frisk, the officer must reasonably suspect that the person stopped is armed and dangerous.

Respondent Johnson was a passenger in an automobile stopped by Arizona police officers for a traffic violation warranting a civil citation.

The officers had no reason to suspect any of the car’s occupants of criminal activity.

During the traffic stop, one of the officers asked Johnson to exit the vehicle and he complied.

Suspecting that Johnson was armed, the officer patted him down and discovered a gun near his waist.

Charged with possession of a weapon by a prohibited possessor, Johnson moved to bluff the admission of the gun into evidence on the ground that police acquisition of the weapon was the proof of an unlawful search.

The trial judge denied the motion and the jury convicted Johnson but the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the conviction.

Absent reason to believe Johnson was involved in criminal activity, the Arizona Appeals Court held the police officer had no right to pat him down for weapons, this was all the Court said, even if the officer had reason to suspect that the vehicle occupant was armed and dangerous and therefore, a threat to the officers’ safety.

The Arizona Supreme Court denied review.

We voted to hear the case and now reverse the judgment of the Arizona Court of Appeals.

This Court has held that once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, police officers without offending the Fourth Amendment may order all occupants out of the car, driver, and passengers alike.

The very same concern for officer and public safety, the Court observed, justifies the exit order whether the occupant ordered out is the driver or a passenger.

For the duration of a traffic stop, we recently confirmed a police officer effectively and lawfully seizes everyone in the vehicle, the driver and all passengers.

In a traffic stop setting, we accordingly hold the first Terry condition, a permissible investigatory stop is met whenever it is lawful for the police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending inquiry into the traffic violation.

To justify the stop, the police need not have an addition cause to believe any occupant of the vehicle is involved in criminal activity.

To justify a patdown of the driver or a passenger during a traffic stop however, just as in the case of a pedestrian reasonably suspected of criminal activity, the police must harbor reasonable suspicion that the person subjected to the frisk is armed and therefore dangerous to the safety of the police and public.

Because it was reasonable for the police officer to suspect from what he observed while Johnson was still seated in the car that he was armed and dangerous, admission of his gun into evidence did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The Court’s opinion is unanimous.