Court looks at issue of police frisks

State says practice should be allowed in high-crime areas

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Supreme Court is reviewing a four-year-old Fairbanks case to decide when it is appropriate for police to frisk people.

Police should be allowed to search people acting suspiciously in high crime areas, a state attorney said during a hearing Friday in Fairbanks. A public defender said officers should have a reason to believe a crime is taking place or that their safety is at risk before patting someone down.

The arguments before the high court stemmed from an October 2001 incident involving a Fairbanks officer, who is no longer with the police department.

The officer, Jonathan Terland, approached two men in a car parked at a dead end near a school reportedly targeted by vandals, trespassers and burglars, according to court documents.

The driver told Terland they had stopped to check on some whale baleen they had just picked up at Fairbanks International Airport, the court papers say.

The passenger, John Q. Adams, said they had stopped because a cover for a spare tire had come off the vehicle. Adams reportedly appeared nervous and repeatedly placed his hands in and out of his pockets.

Terland frisked Adams and found a metal crack pipe and a plastic bag containing cocaine, according to court documents.

Adams was convicted of fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance. The conviction, however, was reversed after Adams appealed, saying the officer had no justification to search him.

The Supreme Court is now reviewing the state's appeal of the reversal.

Kenneth Rosenstein, a state attorney, said the search was warranted by the circumstances - the high crime area, inconsistent explanations as to why the men had stopped and Adams' nervousness.

"Simply nervousness and putting one's hands in one's pockets may not justify a protective search," Rosenstein said. "You can't isolate one or two circumstances, you have to look at all of them."

Public defender Marcia Holland said the men were legally parked. The officer had no evidence that a crime had taken place or was about to take place, she said.

"(Adams) had been cooperative with police," she said. "There was nothing about Mr. Adams that indicated he was an armed and dangerous man ... There is nothing in the facts that Mr. Adams posed a threat to the officer."

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