When can the police stop and frisk me?

Recently on our forum a user asked, “I was walking down the street in New York City and the police stopped, questioned me, and frisked me. I was appalled. I did not think I could be searched without a search warrant. Can you clarify the law and whether this was a violation of my constitutional rights?”

Stop and Frisk Overview

Stop and Frisk is the practice of police officers detaining, questioning and searching civilians. The goal of the practice was to eliminate weapons and contraband from the streets and potentially protect other civilians.

The practices, however, has become very controversial over the last several years with citizens arguing that the process not only potentially violates a citizen’s constitutional right of unlawful search and seizure, but that the police have disproportionately targeted African Americans and Latinos. 

In fact, in 2013, a judge ruled that although the process itself was not unconstitutional, the way the police were carrying out the process was “a form of racial profiling” of young black and Hispanic men. 

Stop and frisk defined

So, what is a stop? A stop is a temporary “seizure” of a person, which can occur if the officer actually physically detains the person with force or simply through a show of authority which compels a person to submit to their authority and cooperate with the officer’s instructions.

A frisk is a pat down of the individual through their outer clothing- generally to determine if the person is carrying a weapon or contraband. Any weapons or contraband that can be felt through the clothing can also be seized and kept by the officer. 

When can the police stop and frisk you?

While it’s clear the discussion, as well as future legal challenges against the process of stop and frisk may be made, as of now, it’s important to understand that a police officer does not always need a warrant to stop and frisk you. In fact, a police officer can stop and frisk you long as they have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring or that you are a possible risk to their safey or the safety of others. For example, they have reasonable suspension that you are armed and dangerous.

There are various actions or reasons which might create reasonable suspicion. For example, if you are loitering in a high crime area, you are present at the scene of a crime, you match the description of a wanted suspect, you act suspicious or run from the police, or if you take any other actions which might be suspicious (i.e. you are overly emotional, angry, or fearful), the police may have reasonable suspicion that you are committing a crime.

Why have the courts allowed stop and frisk?

Although stop and frisk might seem like a violation of your constitutional rights, the courts have ruled that the police need a tool for ensuring their lives, as well as the lives of other citizens, are secure and safe. The court referred to this as a set of possible “flexible” responses they could use to investigate a situation. 

Was the stop and frisk of me legal?

Without more information about your stop and frisk it’s tough to say for sure whether it was legal. Cops have a great deal of leeway to stop an individual. To justify a frisk, however, there generally needs to be other circumstances. 

For example, was the officer alone? Did the officer fear for his safety or the safety of other persons in the area? Were you with a number of other people who were intimidating or who could potentially pose a risk? Did you give answers to the cop during the temporary stop that made him more suspicious? Were you loitering in a high crime area or an area which in itself may create suspicion that you were going to commit a crime?

Bottom Line:

Although a police officer can generally stop an individual and ask them questions, they do not have carte blanche to search you. In fact, the officer generally needs to have a reasonable suspicion that you are committing a crime or you are a danger to him or to others.

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