Minnesota v. Dickerson Case Brief

Facts of the case

On November 9, 1989, while exiting an apartment building with a history of cocaine trafficking, Timothy Dickerson spotted police officers and turned to walk in the opposite direction. In response, the officers commanded Dickerson to stop and proceeded to frisk him. An officer discovered a lump in Dickerson’s jacket pocket, and, upon further tactile investigation, formed the belief that it was cocaine. The officer reached into Dickerson’s pocket and confirmed that the lump was in fact a small bag of cocaine. Consequently, Dickerson was charged with possession of a controlled substance. He requested that the cocaine be excluded from evidence, but the trial court denied his request and he was found guilty. Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed, and the State Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision.

Why is the case important?

A police officer patted down a suspect and discovered a small amount of crack cocaine in his jacket.


Whether the Fourth Amendment permits the seizure of contraband detected through a police officer’s sense of touch during a protective patdown search[?]


The majority first discussed the parameters of [Terry] and observed “[i]f the protective search goes beyond what is necessary to determine if the suspect is armed, it is no longer valid under [Terry] and its fruits will be suppressed.”
An officer may seize non-threatening contraband detected during a protective patdown search of the sort permitted by [Terry], if they stay within the bounds of [Terry].
“The rationale of the plain-view doctrine is that, if contraband is left in open view and is observed by a police officer from a lawful vantage point, there has been no invasion of a legitimate expectation of privacy, and thus no ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment – or at least no search independent of the initial intrusion that gave the officers their vantage point. The warrantless seizure of contraband that presents itself in this manner is deemed justified by the realization that resort to a neutral magistrate under such circumstances would often be impracticable, and would do little to promote the objectives of the Fourth Amendment. The same can be said of tactile discoveries of contraband. 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 by the same practical considerations that inhere in the plain-view context.”
In rejecting the Minnesota Supreme Court’s holding, the majority observed “[f]irst, [Terry] itself demonstrates that the sense of touch is capable of revealing the nature of an object with sufficient reliability to support a seizure. The very premise of [Terry], after all, is that officers will be able to detect the presence of weapons through the sense of touch, and Terry upheld precisely such a seizure. Even if it were true that the sense of touch is generally less reliable than the sense of sight, that only suggests that officers will less often be able to justify seizures of unseen contraband. Regardless of whether the officer detects the contraband by sight or by touch, however, the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that the officer have probable cause to believe that the item is contraband before seizing it ensures against excessively speculative seizures. The court’s second concern – that touch is more intrusive into privacy than is sight – is inapposite in light of the fact th
at the intrusion the court fears has already been authorized by the lawful search for weapons. The seizure of an item whose identity is already known occasions no further invasion of privacy. Accordingly, the suspect’s privacy interests are not advanced by a categorical rule barring the seizure of contraband plainly detected through the sense of touch.”
“[T]he dispositive question before this Court is whether the officer who conducted the search was acting within the lawful bounds marked by [Terry] at the time he gained probable cause to believe that the lump in respondent’s jacket was contraband.” “Under the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of the record before it, it is clear that the court was correct in holding that the police officer in this case overstepped the bounds of the ‘strictly circumscribed’ search for weapons allowed under Terry.” Further, “[w]here, as here, ‘an officer who is executing a valid search for one item seizes a different item,’ this Court rightly ‘has been sensitive to the danger . . . that officers will enlarge a specific authorization, furnished by a warrant or an exigency, into the equivalent of a general warrant to rummage and seize at will.’ Here, the officer’s continued exploration of respondent’s pocket after having concluded that it contained no weapon was unrelated to ‘[t]he sole justifica
tion of the search [under Terry:] . . . the protection of the police officer and others nearby.’ It therefore amounted to the sort of evidentiary search that Terry expressly refused to authorize, and that we have condemned in subsequent cases.”
“Although the officer was lawfully in a position to feel the lump in respondent’s pocket, because [Terry] entitled him to place his hands upon respondent’s jacket, the court below determined that the incriminating character of the object was not immediately apparent to him. Rather, the officer determined that the item was contraband only after conducting a further search, one not authorized by [Terry] or by any other exception to the warrant requirement. Because this further search of respondent’s pocket was constitutionally invalid, the seizure of the cocaine that followed is likewise unconstitutional.”


The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the state supreme court’s judgment that the police officer overstepped the bounds of the strictly circumscribedsearch for weapons allowed under Terry v. Ohio when the officer retrieved a lump of cocaine from Dickerson’s pocket. It held that: (1) consistent with the Fourth Amendment , a police officer may seize nonthreatening contraband detected during a protective pat-down search of a person whom the officer has briefly stopped based on the officer’s reasonable conclusion that criminal activity may be afoot with respect to such person, where the officer is justified in believing that the person is armed and presently dangerous to the officer or to others nearby, so long as the officer’s search is strictly limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons which might be used to harm the officer or others but (2) in the case at hand, the Fourth Amendment did not permit the seizure of the cocaine where (a) the officer determined that the lump was contraband only after squeezing, sliding, and otherwise manipulating the contents of the pocket, which the officer already knew contained no weapon, and (b) because the officer’s further search of the pocket was constitutionally invalid in that it was not authorized by Terry v. Ohio or any other exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, the seizure of the cocaine that followed likewise was unconstitutional.

  • Advocates: Michael O. Freeman on behalf of the Petitioner Richard H. Seamon for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioner Peter W. Gorman on behalf of the Respondent
  • Petitioner: Minnesota
  • Respondent: Timothy Dickerson
  • DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
  • Location: An apartment on the North Side
Citation: 508 US 366 (1993)
Argued: Mar 3, 1993
Decided: Jun 7, 1993
Minnesota v. Dickerson Case Brief