When can the police stop and frisk you on the street?

The United States’ “stop and frisk” rule originated from the Fourth Amendment’s read as unreasonable searches and seizures.

According to the guideline, police may literally stop and “pat down” anybody they believe to be committing, having just committed, or about to commit a crime. They might stop you and search you based only on their suspicion.

The Supreme Court’s Terry v. Ohio decision, which gave police officers the freedom to detain and search someone they think has committed or is about to commit a crime, made the present stop and frisk program permissible in 1968.

Since that time, all 50 states have in some way ratified this law.

When can a police officer stop you?

Whether you are walking, driving, bicycling, boating, or engaging in any other activity, a police officer has the right to stop you if they have reason to believe you are somehow involved in unlawful behavior.

When an officer pulls over your automobile, they must have “probable cause” to suspect the driver violated the law or a “reasonable suspicion” that someone else in the vehicle committed a crime.

What is a ‘reasonable stop’?

Typically, it’s one that doesn’t require a lot of time. The United States Supreme Court stated in Rodriguez v. United States that “exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.”

For instance, if a car is pulled over for a common traffic infraction, the driver cannot be held for any longer than is necessary to issue a penalty. That wouldn’t make sense.

But what would constitute a legal stop? What justifications are valid?

Police officers are justified in stopping you in following cases:

  • A close match to the description of a wanted suspect
  • Present on or near a crime scene
  • Present in a high-crime area and exhibiting other concerning behaviors
  • Running away or displaying furtive movements
  • Loitering in an area or looking for something
  • Acting strangely, such as being angry, fearful, or overly emotional
  • Under the influence of drugs
  • Out of place for an area or time of day

When can a police officer frisk?

An officer is permitted to “frisk” a person in cases when they believe the person they have stopped may be able to harm them with a weapon. This is known as a search.

When you are frisked, the officer rapidly pats down your outer clothes to see if you are hiding or carrying a weapon that might be used to harm the officer.

However, you can only be searched in limited situations, which include:

  • Potential for an officer or bystanders to be injured
  • Officer is alone, without backup
  • Officers are outnumbered by a group that has been stopped
  • People in the group appear agitated or are behaving strangely
  • You provide evasive answers to questions
  • Suspicion that you are armed
  • Suspicion that you may be about to commit a crime using a weapon
  • Time of day or geographic area in conjunction with other factors

What does reasonable suspicion mean?

If you resemble a recent burglary suspect or were caught racing a red light, that would often be regarded as reasonable suspicion.

Police do not have “probable cause” to stop you unless there is some indication that unlawful action has already occurred or is going to. They have no reason to believe you have committed any wrongdoing, in other words.

Despite the fact that stop and frisk was intended to reduce crime, it has also been observed to terrify law-abiding persons, particularly young people of color, and may be widening the chasm between law enforcement officials and those they have promised to protect.