By Emily Gurnon
Updated: 09/15/2010 09:48:13 AM CDT
It's not often that a court gets to cite "Pants on the Ground" as a precedent.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals apparently could not resist referring to the Internet hit rap song when it ruled Tuesday that a police officer did not make a "search" when she pulled up the baggy pants of a man being investigated in a suspected drug deal in St. Paul. As she was hauling up his sagging pants, the officer found a gun.
Frank Irving Wiggins, now 24, of Minneapolis was convicted of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person and sentenced to five years in prison.
"This case requires us to determine the constitutionality of a novel police procedure which, as far as we can tell, has never been reviewed on appeal by this court or any other," Judge Kevin Ross wrote for a three-judge panel that included Thomas Kalitowski and Wilhelmina Wright.
The case grew out of a November 2008 incident in a White Castle parking lot on Rice Street in St. Paul.
Police officer Kara Breci and her partner were patrolling in the "high drug-activity area" when they saw a car idling in the lot with the driver and Wiggins in the front seat. Another man approached the car and got into the back seat — "without any food from the restaurant," the court said.
Also arousing the officers' suspicion: The new arrival appeared to be looking down at his lap. As police approached, they saw the man drop a plastic bag on the floor; he admitted it was "some weed," the court wrote.
Police ordered all three men out.
Wiggins, who was wearing loose-fitting jeans, raised his arms at Breci's command. As he did, the jeans fell to his knees.
"Officer Breci decided to pat-frisk Wiggins for weapons," the court wrote. "But first, she pulled his pants up."
While doing so, "she felt a hard object in his front pocket."
She asked Wiggins what it was. He said he didn't know, the court wrote. The officer found a semiautomatic handgun.
Wiggins' defense attorney asked the Ramsey County district judge handling the case to suppress the gun evidence, arguing that the officer conducted an unconstitutional search when she hoisted his pants. The request was denied.
Wiggins waived his right to a jury trial, and the judge found him guilty. He appealed, challenging the court's denial of the suppression motion.
The appeals court said the "unique wardrobe assist" by the officer was not a search subject to constitutional regulation.
"She hoisted his pants presumably to conceal rather than to reveal," the court wrote.
"We acknowledge that one might be offended by an officer's realigning of his pants: It is the sort of thing that one usually prefers to do for himself," the court said. But the officer was justified by "concerns for her own safety and potential unnecessary embarrassment to Wiggins."
The appeals court said it was not trying to "trample the privacy of young people who participate in the baggy-pants fashion trend," as Wiggins had alleged its decision might. Each case is considered individually, it said.
"Because judicial holdings are limited by their facts, we are confident that our opinion will not be misconstrued to suggest that an officer can freely meddle with a person's clothes to the refrain, 'Pants on the ground, pants on the ground,' under the guise of providing public assistance," the ruling said.
Emily Gurnon can be reached at 651-228-5522.
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