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Stop and Frisk Laws

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What Is a Stop and Frisk?

A “stop and frisk” occurs when a police officers stops an individual and briefly runs their hands on their outer clothing in order to detect concealed weapons. “Stop and frisk” procedures are perfectly acceptable as a result of the Supreme Court case Terry vs. Ohio. Therefore, a “stop and frisk” is sometimes referred to as a “Terry stop.”

In order for a stop and frisk to be considered legal, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is, or is about to be committed. In addition, the officer can only conduct the frisk portion if they suspect that the person is carrying a dangerous weapon. The main purpose of the frisk is to ensure the officer’s safety before they begin questioning the suspect.

What Are the Limitations of Stop and Frisk Pat-Downs?

“Stop and frisk” pat-downs, sometimes called “investigatory detentions,” consist of two parts: the “stop” and the “frisk”. Though they are separate parts, in practice the two parts are usually conducted together. In order for a “stop and frisk” to be legal, the following must be true:

  • Stop: the police officer has a reasonable suspicion, supported by specific facts, that criminal activity has occurred, is in progress, or is about to occur.
  • Frisk: the officer has a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the suspect is currently armed and dangerous 

Therefore, a person can only be stopped if the officer reasonably believes that the suspect is connected in some way to the crime. The crime cannot be based on rumor, but must be supported by actual facts.

What Are the Limitations of What Officers Can Feel For?

In theory, the frisk is limited to the purpose of confirming that the person does not have any weapons on their person. This means that police officers can only go by “plain feel.” “Plain feel” means that officers can only feel with their hands on the outer clothing for objects that might be a weapon, and that officers may not:

  • Search for evidence of the crime unless they have a valid search warrant.
  • Open any containers, purses, wallets, or other closed effects that the suspect is carrying unless it might be concealing a weapon. 
  • Manipulate or squeeze objects

However, if in the course of the frisk the officer, using plain feel, discovers illegal contraband such as drugs, it may become admissible as evidence. For example, suppose the officer feels a bulge in the suspect’s pocket that might be a gun. If instead it turns out to be a package of drugs, the suspect may then potentially be charged with drug possession, although this would ultimately depend on the overall facts of the case. The important thing to remember is that the officer can only search for weapons during a stop and frisk.

What Does “Reasonable Suspicion” Mean?

The U.S. Supreme Court has defined reasonable suspicion as “common sense conclusions” that the ordinary citizen would reach based on the facts of the circumstances. This means it is more than a vague hunch or imagination, and requires facts to support the officer’s conclusions. 

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than “probable cause,” which the police need in order to arrest an individual or conduct a full search. However, what an officer discovers while investigating their reasonable suspicions may give rise to probable cause.

What Should I Do If I Am Stopped or Frisked?

If you are detained by the police and subject to a stop and frisk, you should conduct yourself according to the following guidelines:

  • Cooperate: You should remain composed and avoid resisting police authorities. Do not try to run. Refusing to cooperate could lead to criminal violations such as obstruction of justice, and will raise the level of suspicion even if you are innocent.
  • Remain Polite and Silent: While you should cooperate with police, you do not need to say anything that might incriminate yourself. If you wish to volunteer information, think very carefully about how it may affect you if you do.

You should understand that stop and frisk procedures are a necessary part of police work. If you are not found to be in violation of any laws, the officer should promptly end the detention. If the detention does not end promptly, ask the officer if you are under arrest and if you are free to go.

If they do not say “you are under arrest” or “no, you are not free to go,” you should consider reminding them that you have cooperated with them, that this detention has become unreasonable, and that you wish to leave. You should be free to go about your business, and the stop and frisk will not be recorded in your record.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Stop and Frisk Issues?

If you feel that a stop and frisk procedure was unreasonable and violated your rights, you should consult a criminal attorney. Stop and frisk detentions are not designed for the purpose of obtaining evidence. In fact, any evidence that is illegally obtained cannot be used in court. An experienced lawyer can explain stop and frisk or search and seizure issues to you, and whether or not any evidence collected will be admissible.

Photo of page author Matthew Izzi

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 06-16-2015 12:37 PM PDT

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