Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Plain Feel Doctrine Definition:

If, during a lawful pat-down search, an officer feels an object whose mass makes it immediately identifiable as contraband, that officer can seize the item.

Related Terms: Terry Search, Plain View Doctrine

In Commonwealth v Thomspon, Justice Kelly of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania wrote:

"When there is a particularized and objective basis for detention, and an officer observes conduct which leads him to believe the suspect may be armed and dangerous, the officer may pat down the suspect's outer garments for weapons. If no weapons are found, the suspect is free to leave if the officer concludes he is not involved in any criminal activity. Weapons found as a result of this pat down may be seized. Nonthreatening contraband may be seized only if it is discovered in compliance with the plain feel doctrine.

"Under the plain feel doctrine, a police officer may seize non-threatening contraband detected through the officer's sense of touch during a Terry frisk if the officer is lawfully in a position to detect the presence of contraband, the incriminating nature of the contraband is immediately apparent from its tactile impression and the officer has a lawful right of access to the object. The plain feel doctrine is only applicable where the officer conducting the frisk feels an object whose mass or contour makes its criminal character immediately apparent. Immediately apparent means that the officer readily perceives, without further exploration or searching, that what he is feeling is contraband. If, after feeling the object, the officer lacks probable cause to believe that the object is contraband without conducting some further search, the immediately apparent requirement has not been met and the plain feel doctrine cannot justify the seizure of the object."

Similarly, in State v Whitehead, Justice of the noted the plain feel doctrine as it applied to Terry searches:

"While conducting a pat-down search for weapons, officers may seize contraband found during the pat-down under the plain view doctrine if they are in a lawful position to view it or the plain feel doctrine if the unlawful nature of the object is immediately apparent. [T]he U.S. Supreme Court1 established a plain-feel exception to the requirement that a warrant be obtained for a seizure during a patdown search of contraband other than weapons."

In Dunn v State, Justice Smith of the Court of Appeals of Georgia wrote:

"Under the plain feel doctrine, if, during a lawful pat-down search, an officer feels an object whose contours or mass makes it immediately identifiable as contraband, that officer can seize the item. An officer need not conclusively identify what type of drug the defendant was carrying in order for the plain feel doctrine to make the seizure of the contraband lawful."


  • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v Thompson, 939 A. 2d 371 (2007)
  • Dunn v. State, 657 SE 2d 649 (2008)
  • Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 US 366 (1993; note #1)
  • State v. Whitehead, 980 So. 2d 243 (2008)

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