Before giving a person a courtesy ride in their vehicle, a police officer will often require that person to undergo a pat down search for weapons. The officer often explains this is done to ensure the officer’s safety, but what the Colorado Supreme Court decided last week was whether two such searches were constitutional.
On April 29, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a pair of cases that pre-ride pat downs were constitutional because the defendants had voluntarily consented to the searches based on their behavior. In each case, Gow v. People and People v. Berdahl, the defendant was a male whom an officer patted down before giving them a courtesy ride in their police vehicle. And in each case, the officer found evidence of illegal drugs on the defendant, which the defendants tried unsuccessfully to have suppressed by the trial court.
A pat down or “frisk” constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court used a similar analysis in Gow and Berdahl, which hinged on whether the defendant gave voluntary consent to the search.
In Gow, a Jefferson County deputy sheriff was driving through a neighborhood late at night when he stopped to question a lone man who was carrying a box. The man, Tommy Gow, told the officer it he’d just bought an iPad from a friend. Gow walked away, but later asked the officer to give him a ride to a friend’s house. The officer told Gow he’d have to pat him down, to which Gow replied, “Okay. I don’t have weapons,” according to the record. The officer then found methamphetamine on Gow during the frisk and arrested him for possession.
At trial, Gow and the officer had conflicting narratives of their interaction, with the defendant claiming the officer was harassing him.
The court sided with the officer’s version of events and denied Gow’s motion to suppress the evidence from the search. Gow was later convicted as charged.
Gow appealed, but a division of the appellate court would unanimously affirm. “[T]here is no affront to the Fourth Amendment when a police officer requires a person who has voluntarily sought assistance but whom the officer has no duty to assist,” according to the Court of Appeals opinion, “to undergo a pat-down search as a condition of entering a police vehicle, even when the officer does not have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous.”