PENNSYLVANIA v. MIMMS
This case arose when two Philadelphia police officers pulled over the defendant, Harry Mimms, for driving with an expired license plate. After asking Mimms to exit the car, the officers noticed an unusual bulge underneath his jacket. One of the officers searched Mimms and discovered a loaded .38-caliber revolver. Mimms was charged with carrying a concealed deadly weapon and unlawfully carrying a firearm without a license. He was convicted on both counts at trial after his motion to suppress the revolver was denied.
On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that the officers' request for Mimms to exit the vehicle was an unlawful "seizure" in violation of the Fourth Amendment. According to the court, the officer could not point to any "objective observable facts to support a suspicion that criminal activity was afoot or that the occupants of the vehicle posed a threat to police safety" sufficient to warrant ordering Mimms to step out of the car. Therefore, the officers should never have noticed the bulge and the search should never have taken place.
Do police officers violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures when, during a routine traffic stop, they obtain evidence through a search conducted after asking the suspect to exit the vehicle without a justifiable reason to do so?
Legal provision: Amendment 4: Fourth Amendment
No. In a 6-3 per curiam decision, the Court held that the search did not violate Mimms' rights under the Fourth Amendment. The Court noted that the officers had already detained Mimms in order to issue him a traffic summons and felt that asking him to exit the vehicle was a minimal and reasonable intrusion of his freedom. Whether the search occurred inside or outside the car was irrelevant to the Court: the officers had stopped Mimms for a legitimate reason and, upon observing the bulge in his jacket, any person of reasonable caution would have conducted the search.
Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that such searches, in order to conform to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, must relate to the reason for the stop. Because the officers had detained Mimms for an expired license plate, searching him for concealed weapons was not within the scope of the stop and therefore made it an unlawful search. Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, filed a separate dissent arguing that the majority opinion gave too much discretion to police officers, allowing them to search detainees whenever they could invent any basis for concern.