Criminal Law

Stop-and-Frisk Law

By Micah Schwartzbach, Attorney
The police may neither detain nor pat you down without a legitimate reason.

The police need probable cause or a warrant to arrest someone. They often need one of the two to search someone or something. But a lesser standard—“reasonable suspicion”—allows officers to briefly detain people and perform limited searches.

This kind of detention-and-search is known as “stop-and-frisk.” It’s also sometimes called “Terry stop” or “Terry frisk,” in reference to the Supreme Court decision of Terry v. Ohio. (392 U.S. 1 (1968).)

Reasonable Suspicion

Assume an officer is on patrol. She notices a man behaving unusually and begins to suspect that a crime is going on. If her suspicion that the man is involved in criminal behavior is objectively reasonable, she may briefly detain him in order to investigate. This detention is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, but it’s not a full-blown arrest, so it doesn’t require probable cause.

Similarly, the fact that someone starts to run away after noticing the police could be enough to justify a Terry stop. On the other hand, simply walking in a high-crime area and seeming suspicious to the officer for some unspecified reason is not enough for a detention. If the officer nevertheless stops and frisks someone in that kind of situation, any evidence from the encounter will normally be inadmissible in court.

Free to Leave?

When a suspect reasonably doesn't feel free to leave, there’s been a detention. If there hasn’t been a detention, of course, the police don’t need reasonable suspicion.

Factors that might make a reasonable person feel unable to leave include the officer:

  • displaying a weapon
  • physically touching the suspect, or
  • using strong language or tone of voice.

If the officer approaches someone on the street and politely asks to talk for a minute, there probably hasn’t been a detention. If the person responds with an incriminating statement or gives the officer a basis to detain, frisk, or arrest, the evidence will in all likelihood be admissible in court.

Reason to Frisk

That there’s reasonable suspicion to detain doesn’t always mean there’s a basis to frisk. After a legitimate detention, an officer may normally conduct a pat-down only if there’s reason to suspect that the suspect is armed and dangerous.

The “frisk” part of stop-and-frisk is supposed to be a limited search of the suspect’s outer clothing. It’s meant to be a search for weapons only. But an officer who comes across something that feels like a weapon may reach into the suspect’s clothing to grab and examine it. If an officer encounters something during the limited frisk that doesn’t feel like a weapon—but is obviously contraband—the officer may likewise seize it.

Get Legal Help

Make sure to talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney if you have a case. Search and seizure law is complex and can vary somewhat from one state to another. A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to explain the relevant law and your rights.

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