The term “stop and frisk” refers to when a police officer stops an individual, and briefly runs their hands on the person’s outer clothing. This is done to detect any potentially concealed weapons. The Supreme Court case that ruled stop and frisks were acceptable was the Terry v. Ohio case. For this reason stop and frisk searches may also be referred to as a “Terry Stop.”

In order for a stop and frisk search to be considered legal, the officer must have reasonable suspicion to stop the person in the first place. Reasonable suspicion is essentially a justifiable suspicion associated with an individual that is based on the facts and circumstances that justifies stopping a person thought to be involved in a criminal activity.

It is important to note that reasonable suspicion is a different standard than probable cause. Probable cause refers to a reasonable belief that a person will commit, or has committed, a crime or other violation. For a reasonable belief to exist, there must be factual evidence to support the evidence. Thus, a gut feeling is not enough to constitute probable cause. Probable cause is generally established through:

  • The officer’s observations, such as sights, sounds, and smells;
  • Circumstantial evidence; and/or
  • Information from informants, witnesses, and victims.

Importantly, an officer may only conduct the frisking portion of a stop and frisk if they reasonably suspect that the person they have stopped is carrying a dangerous weapon. The main purpose of frisking is to establish officer safety before they begin questioning their suspect. The police can develop probable cause during a stop and frisk, such as feeling something that could be a weapon. If the police do develop probable cause, then they could perform a full search.

Are There Any Limitations To a Stop and Frisk Pat-Down?

Stop and frisk pat-downs are sometimes referred to as investigatory detentions. Such methods consist of two parts:

  • The Stop: In order for the officer to stop a person, they must have a reasonable suspicion. This suspicion must be supported by specific facts that verify that criminal activity has occurred, is in progress, or will occur; and
  • The Frisk: In order for the police to lawfully do an initial exterior search of a person’s body, they must have reasonable suspicion that the person they have stopped has a dangerous weapon on their body. This suspicion must be based on specific facts, as mentioned before.

In short, a person can only be stopped if an officer reasonably believes that they are somehow connected to a crime. They must reasonably believe the suspect to be armed and dangerous before they can physically search them. The suspected crime may not be based on rumor, and must be supported by actual facts.

Are There Any Limitations Regarding What Officers Can Feel For?

Once again, the frisk portion of stop and frisk is intended to confirm that the suspect does not have any weapons on their body. As such, officers are only allowed to go by “plain feel” of their search. Thus, officers can only feel with their hands on the outer clothing for objects that may be a weapon. Officers cannot do the following during a stop and frisk:

  • Search for evidence of the crime unless they have a valid search warrant;
  • Open any closed containers, purses, wallets, or other closed effects that the suspect is carrying (unless it may be concealing a weapon); and/or
  • Manipulate or squeeze any objects, even if they believe those objects to be weapons instead of body parts.

However, if during the frisk the officer uses plain feel and discovers illegal contraband such as drugs, it may become admissible as evidence. An example of this would be if an officer feels an item in the suspect’s pocket, and reasonably believes that it may be a gun. If the item instead turns out to be a package of drugs, the suspect could then potentially be charged with drug possession. This is dependent upon the overall facts of each specific case. The main point is that the officer may only search for weapons during a stop and frisk.

What Should I Do If I Am Stopped and Frisked?

Many states allow you to record your interactions with police officers, as long as you do not interfere with their work. If your state allows filming your interaction with the police, you should consider doing so as evidence of your cooperation and the officer’s reasonable suspicion. It is important to remember that during any interaction with an officer, you should remain calm and collected.

Once again, if an officer is attempting to stop and frisk you, they must have a reasonable suspicion to believe that you may be connected to a crime based on the facts or the circumstances. You may politely inquire as to why the officer suspects that you may be armed or dangerous. If the officers state that they do not suspect you of being armed or dangerous or committing a crime, then you may politely refuse the search of your body and person.

However, if the police officer suspects you to be armed or dangerous or insists on conducting a frisk of your body it is important that you cooperate. It is also important that you remain silent during the stop and frisk. While you should cooperate with the police, there is no need to say anything to provide them with probable cause to continue a search of your body or make an arrest.

Once the frisk is over and you are not found to be in violation of any laws, the officer should end your detention. If the officers do not promptly end your detention, you may then ask them if you are under arrest or are free to go. If they do not provide you with a definite answer as to whether or not you are under arrest or are free to go, you may remind them that you cooperated and feel this detention has now become unreasonable. After that you should be free to go, unless the officer has probable cause to place you under arrest.

Do I Need an Attorney for Stop and Frisk Issues?

Typically, stop and frisks do not last long and there are usually no issues. However, if you feel that a recent stop and frisk procedure was performed unreasonably and the officer violated your rights, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney. It is important to contact an attorney immediately so any evidence of your search, such as the body cam footage, may be preserved.

If the police officer searched your person unjustifiably, then any evidence illegally obtained by that search may not be used in court. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you determine if the stop and frisk performed on you was illegal or not. Additionally, if you have criminal charges being asserted against you, an attorney can represent you at any necessary court hearings.