Criminal Law

Stop and Frisk

Ronnie Carr came home from school on an ordinary day. As he stood by his apartment door, police officers flashed their badges, then searched his backpack and pockets. The officers told Carr that they stopped him because he looked suspicious.

Twenty minutes later, the officers left without arresting or citing him with any offense. Nonetheless, this had an impact on Carr, a black teenager, "I felt bad, like I did something wrong," he said.1

Police forces in many large US cities stop and question more than a million people each year. Most of the people stopped are black or Hispanic men. While many are frisked, almost all are innocent of any crime. However, the "stop and frisk" policies across the US are continuing, amid objections from civil rights groups.

What Is a Stop and Frisk?

A stop and frisk is when police officers stop an individual and run their hands along their outer clothes in a patdown in order to detect concealed weapons. Such actions are legal after the 1968 Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio. The court ruled that police can do a limited search for weapons based on a reasonable suspicion that the person stopped is armed and dangerous. These are called a "Terry stop."

A reasonable suspicion is less than the probable cause that's required to arrest someone. Adding a search for weapons makes the search a stop and frisk.

To justify such stops, police officer must have a reasonable suspicion a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed. If the officer reasonably believes the suspect is in possession of a dangerous weapon, he may conduct a patdown of the suspect's outer clothing to search for weapons.

Not all stops are the same. Some people are just stopped and questioned. Others have their bag or backpack searched. And sometimes police conduct a full pat-down.

Are Stop and Frisk Policies Common?

These stop and frisks have been occurring in major US cities. Last year, New York police stopped 531,159 people, more than five times the number in 2002. Fifty-one percent of those stopped were black, 32% Hispanic and 11% white.

In Philadelphia, stops nearly doubled to more than 200,000 from 2007 to 2008. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter began an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy in the year since his election in November 2007 and overall crime has dropped. Although, how much can be attached to the policy isn't specifically known.

In Los Angeles, pedestrian stops have doubled in the past six years to 244,038 in 2008. The number of people stopped in cars is even higher.

Several other major police departments don't keep street-stop statistics or don't release them. Chicago police refused to release numbers. Boston police say they don't keep the records. The New Orleans department isn't required to keep statistics on race and pedestrian stops.

What's the Problem?

Stop and frisks cause friction between civil rights and the goal of crime-prevention. Civil liberties groups say these stop and frisk practices are racially motivated and fail to deter crime.

On the other hand, police departments claim they are a necessary tool that turns up illegal weapons and drugs and prevents more serious crimes from being committed.

Racial Bias

Police officers have been accused of stopping people based on racial profiling. Racial profiling is when there is no legal justification for stopping an individual, but the person is stopped because of race.

For instance, in Los Angles, a report by theĀ American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Southern California showed that African-Americans were stopped nearly three times more than Caucasians. While racial profiling is illegal, it's difficult to prove.

Tax Money and Time

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on street stops, said few searches yield weapons or drugs. And the more people are searched, the more innocent people are hassled. This ties up resources and can become costly.

When officers make a stop, they are required to fill out a form, including the time and location of the stop and why police were suspicious. Age, race and whether the person was frisked are usually also recorded.

What to Do If You Are Stopped?

If you're stopped, it's best to cooperate with the officers to make the experience quick and less painful. If you feel that you have been racially profiled, you can contact your local ACLU chapter Some people have filed lawsuits against their city and have spoken out publicly. Most, however, have just accepted it and move on.

Sources

1Colleen Long, Police Stop More than 1 Million On Street, The Huffington Post, Oct. 9, 2009, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20091009/us-stop-and-frisk/ accessed Oct. 29, 2009.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is there any relief short of filing a lawsuit if I think a stop and frisk was inappropriate?
  • I was involved in a stop and frisk, and upon obtaining a copy of the report of the incident, I see that it contains incorrect information. Should I be concerned?
  • Is it easier or harder to show racial profiling if a town is predominantly one race? For example, most motorists and pedestrians who are subject to stop and frisk by the police in a mostly Caucasian suburb near my home are African-American, but the population in the surrounding areas is mostly African-American.
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