Case Law

justice statue

Case law is the basic foundation for what law enforcement officers can and should do in the field with regard to protecting the civil liberties of the people they deal with on a daily basis and it is the responsibility of individual officers to know what is legal and what is not legal.  Officers strive daily to maintain the balance between enforcing the law and protecting personal liberty.  Brave American men and women have perished for centuries to protect personal rights.  They are sacred. Knowing Constitutional limits is beneficial because it affords officers a comfort zone to know that their actions, restrained to the limits set forth by the courts, will be seen as legal, notwithstanding an additional judicial challenge.  An officer who is unsure of the law might hesitate, and hesitation could result in serious mistakes or injuries.  Further, officers who are unfamiliar with case law, or who simply listen to what others tell them, are only placing themselves and their agency in a position of increased liability.  Instead of taking someone else’s word for what is legal and what isn’t, educate yourself by reading the opinions of the court.  Wikipedia is a great resource for finding landmark court rulings; however, keep in mind that anyone can add information to those types of sites, so if there is a link the case law itself, be certain to read it for yourself.  Understanding how Graham v. Connor (1989) should affect your decision to utilize force in a particular scenario is important, because failure to properly follow the guidelines set forth by the court could result in both civil and criminal penalties. Also, consider the adage that “knowledge is power.”  Knowledge of the law is imperative for law enforcement officers because understanding what you CAN do is almost certainly as important as knowing what you CAN’T do when it comes to exercising your power and authority in the field.  For instance, an officer’s knowledge of whether he can search a passenger’s belongings in a motor vehicle where probable cause exists for a search might mean the difference between finding a large sum of money, drugs, or a cache of weapons and not finding them at all.  

This is list is not currently complete, nor will it ever be “complete” because there is new case law regularly issued that affects the way law enforcement officers conduct their business in the field.

Cases are listed under each heading in alphabetical order.  Using CTRL+F (windows machine) or Command+F (macintosh) will allow you to search for specific words on this page in order to locate case law.  


Bryan v. McPherson, 08-55622 (9th Cir. 2009) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
In this case, the officer used a Taser to subdue an agitated subject  during a traffic stop that was visibly upset and outside of his vehicle after being detained for failing to wear a seat belt.  The officer’s use of force was held to be excessive because the subject was not aggressive towards the officer and because he was not attempting to flee.   The court did not accept the officer’s claim that he felt the subject might be mentally ill and might require detention.

Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Police officers detained a subject, who was observed acting suspiciously, and used force against him to effect the detention.  The court ruled that an objective reasonableness standard should apply to a citizen claim of excessive force by law enforcement during an arrest, investigative detention, or another seizure.

Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
A deputy sheriff’s decision to end a pursuit resulted in the fleeing suspect’s paralysis.  The court ruled that the actions taken by the officer were not a violation of the offender’s rights and that whether or not an action constitutes deadly force is less important than whether the act was reasonable.  “In determining a seizure’s reasonableness, the Court balances the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests allegedly justifying the intrusion.”    

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)  | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
This case deals with the use of deadly force to stop a fleeing felon who was unarmed.  The court ruled that an officer’s use of deadly force must be reasonable in order to be constitutional.  Deadly force is a seizure.  

United States v. Dotson, 49 F.3d 227 (6th Cir. 1995) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers that have reasonable suspicion to effect an investigative detention may use the appropriate force to complete the detention.  “We find under the circumstances here that Detective Gannon’s effort to restrain Dotson was an appropriate degree of force to effectuate the Terry stop, and that Dotson’s attempt to flee ripened Detective Gannon’s reasonable suspicion into probable cause to arrest Dotson.”



Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The court’s holding in this case was two-fold:  The court’s decision in New York v. Belton (1981) did not allow for a search of a vehicle incident to arrest once the arrestee is secured in a manner preventing his access to the vehicle and that the vehicle exception to the requirement of obtaining a search warrant only applies when it is reasonable that evidence of the crime can be found inside the vehicle. 

Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers may conduct a pat down search of passengers in a vehicle during a traffic stop if it is reasonable that they might be armed.

Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The court held that the searching automobiles without a warrant by prohibition agents was constitutional due to mobility of vehicles, which made seeking a search warrant unreasonable.

Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. 58 (1967) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
A vehicle impounded for evidentiary purposes or for seizure is subject to warrantless search.

New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
A New York trooper searched a vehicle incident to arrest and discovered narcotics.  The court held the trooper’s search was constitutional, upholding a search of the immediate vicinity around an arrestee following his arrest as allowed in Chimel v. California (1969).  The search of the area “within the arrestee’s immediate control” is permissible. 

South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
A vehicle may be unlocked and entered prior to towing for an inventory search during impoundment.

United States v. Anchondo, 156 F.3d 1043 (10th Cir. 1998) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Use of a drug-detecting K-9 allowed for vehicle search.  When officers failed to locate narcotics inside the vehicle, they searched the former occupants of the vehicle.  Search was upheld.  

United States v. Downs, 151 F.3d 1301 (10th Cir. 1998) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The odor of raw marijuana justifies a more intrusive vehicle search than the odor of burnt marijuana does.

United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The court held that “police officers who have legitimately stopped an automobile and who have probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it may conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle that is as thorough as a magistrate could authorize by warrant.” 

Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The court held that “police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.”

Conducting the Stop

Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers may ask the passengers in a stopped vehicle to exit the same as they can ask the driver in Pennsylvania v. Mimms (1977).  

Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106(1977) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers may ask the driver of a stopped vehicle to exit without specific reason.

Seizure in Tennessee and the Use of Emergency Equipment

State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170 (Tenn. 2013) | Tenn. Supreme Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Ruling affirms that officers must have reasonable suspicion to utilize their blue lights.  Officer used blue lights while checking a vehicle and its driver in a parking lot during an encounter that resulted in an arrest for felony DUI.  The conviction was overturned because the court ruled the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to seize/detain the motorist.  

State v. Williams, 185 S.W.3d 311 (Tenn. 2006) | Tenn. Supreme Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Use of blue lights/emergency equipment equates to a seizure in the State of Tennessee after the court ruled against an officer’s use of blue lights when stopping behind a vehicle that was blocking a lane of traffic when he subsequently arrested the driver for driving under the influence. 


Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
All occupants of a vehicle are seized during a traffic stop.

California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Motor homes are treated as vehicles with regard to warrantless searches unless the motor home has been parked and rendered immobile at which time the vehicle is most likely considered a residence.

Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366 (2003) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The court upheld the arrest and subsequent conviction of a passenger in a vehicle where drugs and money were found by police, noting that the court would consider all actions and relevant information leading up to an arrest to determine “’whether these historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to’ probable cause.”

United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411 (1981) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers may stop a vehicle upon reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed and a traffic offense is not required.

United States v. Everett, 601 F.3d 484 (6th Cir. 2010) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers can make a pretextual traffic stop and ask questions not related to the traffic stop.  In this case, the officer was making traffic stops “with the real purpose of trying to ferret out other types of crime.”


Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers may not stop and frisk a person based solely on an anonymous complaint that describes the person in question but does not allude to any criminal activity the person may be planning.  

Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491 (1983) | Court Opinion | Synopsis|
Officers may approach a person based upon his behavior, but they can’t perform a search or detain the person absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
An officer conducting a Terry search that feels an object he knows is not a weapon but recognizes the item to be contraband through training and experience and without further manipulation may seize the item.

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers may conduct a brief detention and search for weapons.  The detention must be brief and only long enough to either dispel suspicion or to allow it to rise to a level of probable cause.  Searches must be based in articulable facts, they must be limited to the outer garments, and intrusion into the garments can occur only after an officer feels what might be a weapon during the course of the pat down.  

United States v. Black, No. 11-5084 (4th Cir. 2013) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The court held that the officers’ reasonable suspicion was suspect prior to detaining the suspect in question because the activities were not exclusive or necessarily indicative of criminal activity.  Also interesting to note that even though the officers did not initially consider the defendant detained, the officers’ show of force in numbers and actions with other possible suspects on scene, as well as the fact that defendant’s license was affixed to the officer’s uniform.  The standard for detention in this case was whether a reasonable person would consider themselves detained.  

United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873 (1975) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Agents of the U.S. Border Patrol conducted a stop and investigative detention near the border based solely on the race of the occupants of the vehicle.  The court noted that officers must have reasonable suspicion to stop and detain persons, stating specifically that “Except at the border and its functional equivalents, officers on roving patrol may stop vehicles only if they are aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts, that reasonably warrant suspicion that the vehicles contain aliens who may be illegally in the country.”

United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
A person is seized when a reasonable person would conclude that they are not free to leave during an encounter with law enforcement personnel. “Examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer’s request might be compelled.”

United States v. Paulette, 05-5549 (6th Cir. 2006) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Officers may conduct a Terry stop and frisk based on their observations, specifically in this case because when “viewing the totality of the circumstances, the officers had a reasonable suspicion that Paulette was engaged in criminal activity based upon his hand movements consistent with drug-dealing activity, efforts to evade the police upon noticing them, and presence in a high crime area.” 


Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387 (1977) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Known as the “Christian Burial Case,” the court held that when officers engaged in conduct in order illicit a response, they violated suspect’s rights because the conduct was “tantamount to an interrogation.”

California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121 (1983) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The court tackled the question of “whether Miranda warnings are required if the suspect is not placed under arrest, voluntarily comes to the police station, and is allowed to leave unhindered by police after a brief interview.”  The court held that Miranda warnings are not required in this circumstance.

New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
The public safety exception to the requirements set forth in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) where officers noticed an empty holster on a suspect under arrest at which time he was interrogated as to the whereabouts of the firearm prior to the administration of the advisement of his rights.  “The police in this case, in the very act of apprehending a suspect, were confronted with the immediate necessity of ascertaining the whereabouts of a gun which they had every reason to believe the suspect had just removed from his empty holster and discarded in the supermarket. So long as the gun was concealed somewhere in the supermarket, with its actual whereabouts unknown, it obviously posed more than one danger to the public safety: an accomplice might make use of it, a customer or employee might later come upon it.  In such a situation, if the police are required to recite the familiar Miranda warnings before asking the whereabouts of the gun, suspects in Quarles’ position might well be deterred from responding.”

Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966) | Court Opinion | Synopsis |
Suspects who are in custody and facing interrogation by law enforcement must be advised of their rights.  “…the prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination. By custodial interrogation, we mean questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way. As for the procedural safeguards to be employed, unless other fully effective means are devised to inform accused persons of their right of silence and to assure a continuous opportunity to exercise it, the following measures are required. Prior to any questioning, the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed. The defendant may waive effectuation of these rights, provided the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. If, however, he indicates in any manner and at any stage of the process that he wishes to consult with an attorney before speaking there can be no questioning. Likewise, if the individual is alone and indicates in any manner that he does not wish to be interrogated, the police may not question him.”