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What is Stop and Frisk?

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

You're a young man minding your business on a street corner, when suddenly a police officer strides forward and asks you something. When you hesitate in responding, he aggressively pushes you against a fence and does a pat-down search of your outer clothing to check for weapons, discovering a vial of cocaine instead.

Was the police officer acting within the law? It depends on whether the search could be characterized as a "stop and frisk." But what is stop and frisk and how is it legal? This type of search happens when police officers stop you for questioning and pat down your clothing to see if you're carrying a gun or knife, much like in the situation described above. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld this practice, there are still boundaries that police cannot cross.

When Can Police Stop and Frisk You?

Let's say an officer on patrol becomes suspicious of two individuals he observes repeatedly peering into a store window, who seem like they might be casing the store for a robbery. When he approaches to question them and one mumbles a response, can the officer forcefully spin him around and pat down his outer clothing to check for weapons?

These were essentially the facts in Terry v. Ohio, the precedent-setting 1968 Supreme Court case about stop and frisk. The justices held that a police officer who's investigating suspicious behavior may lawfully pat down the outer clothing of someone reasonably believed to be armed and dangerous, in an attempt to discover weapons that might be used to assault the officer.

The Court concluded that stop and frisk doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Because of the landmark decision's name, another common term for a stop and frisk is a "Terry frisk" or "Terry search."

However, the police aren't allowed to target people willy-nilly. While they don't need probable cause to stop you, they must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Also, they can't frisk you unless they reasonably believe that you may be armed and dangerous.

Importantly, any contraband that officers find during the weapons pat-down, such as illegal drugs, can usually be used against you in court.

Stop and Frisk Controversy

The ongoing debate with stop and frisk is how to prevent police officers from engaging in racial profiling in deciding who gets stopped and frisked. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others have claimed that the police are unconstitutionally relying on people's race in making judgments about who seems suspicious and dangerous.

Critics scored a major victory when a federal judge declared New York City's stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional in 2013 based on statistical evidence suggesting that officers were disproportionately targeting people of color. Although a federal appeals court blocked the judge's decision from taking effect, the city's mayor announced a plan to reform the controversial police practice to make sure that stop and frisk isn't used in a discriminatory manner.

While civil rights activists have achieved some successes in challenging police department policies, stop and frisk remains lawful and widely used throughout the United States. However, officers must remain within constitutional boundaries and comply with local police guidelines.

Have Questions About Stop and Frisk? Ask an Attorney

If you believe that you've been stopped and frisked illegally, don't waste a moment before speaking with an experienced attorney who knows the ropes and will protect your constitutional rights. Contact a qualified criminal defense lawyer near you today to ensure that your rights are protected.

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