If a police officer has never done a stop and frisk on you before, it is not a pleasant experience. An officer approaches you on the street. They might ask you a question or order you to stop before whipping you around, pushing against the nearest wall and running their hands over your clothing. The officer says he’s checking you for weapons but seizes something they say is a container of illegal drugs before arresting you on the spot.
The Fourth Amendment says that the police cannot conduct unreasonable searches and seizures of our persons or property. So how are stop-and-frisk searches legal? And do the police have unlimited power to stop and search anybody they see on the street?
History of stop-and-frisk searches
The U.S. Supreme Court created a massive exception to Fourth Amendment protections in its landmark Terry v. Ohio decision of 1968. In that case, the Court ruled that police officers’ right to safety outweighs the Bill of Rights’ protection against warrantless searches. The Court ruled that an officer may use their hands to pat down a person they reasonably suspect of committing a crime, but only to check for weapons that could injure the officer. However, any contraband the officer discovers on their search for weapons can be seized, used as probable cause to arrest you, and admitted into evidence at trial.
Limits on police frisk powers
However, the police do not have the unlimited ability to stop and frisk the public. An officer must be able to say they had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the individual was in the midst of committing a crime or had just done so. Also, the officer’s claims that they believed you were armed must be reasonable.
Unfortunately, police departments across the country sometimes abuse their stop-and-frisk powers, most often targeting racial and ethnic minorities. Defendants have the power to challenge evidence seized during an illegal search with the help of their defense attorney.