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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > June 2013 > State v. Howard, Second District Court of Appeals (Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami and Montgo

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State v. Howard, Second District Court of Appeals (Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami and Montgomery counties), May 24, 2013.

Question: Can an officer open a small container found during a pat-down that he suspects may contain razor blades.
Quick answer: No. An officer’s mere hunch that a small container may contain razor blades is insufficient.

Facts: Joseph Howard was patted-down as officers were investigating nuisance calls to a party being thrown by an outlaw biker gang. During the Howard’s pat-down, the officer found a handgun (which Howard had a CCW permit for) and three legal pocket knives. He also detected a small, hard container in Howard’s front pocket. Concerned the container might have razor blades in it, the officer opened it and discovered cocaine. The officer testified later that he had expertise in gang activity and believed that gang members (and others) occasionally hid razor blades on their person.
Why this case is important: The court held that opening the container violated the Constitution because the officer had neither consent nor a warrant. Pat-down searches promote officer safety, but they must be limited to weapons that could harm the officer. In the words, allowing officers the limited ability to pat-down a suspect is a balance between a person’s right to privacy and protecting officers.
However, following a line of Ohio cases, this court held that if officers could search any container that could conceivably hold a razor blade, they would essentially be able to search every container. Indeed, because razor blades are so small and flexible, an officer conducting a pat-down for razors could search every article of clothing, bag, or container on a suspect.
Keep in mind: The purpose of a pat-down search is to protect you from obvious weapons that present an immediate risk to you. It is not a free license for you to conduct a search that the Constitution otherwise prevents. In Ohio, courts have routinely rejected the argument that officers open small containers because they might contain a small weapon like a razor blade.
View the Ohio Second District Court of Appeals website to view the entire opinion.