A Fairfax Criminal Lawyer Explains Stop and Frisk Searches

Stop and Frisk Terry stopIn legal parlance, a stop and frisk, also known as a Terry stop, is not exactly the same thing as a “search.” The United States Supreme Court, in the case of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) ruled that, given a Terry stop’s brief period of detention, a police officer may stop and frisk someone without probable cause. On both a personal and professional level, I find this idea to be patently ridiculous. A search is a search, and whether it is brief or not, it is an intrusion nonetheless. The idea that an officer can search a private, law-abiding citizen without probable cause and subject them to the indignities of a “pat down” is offensive. Unfortunately, I am not a Supreme Court justice, and I don’t get to help interpret the laws of this country.

The Reasonable Suspicion Standard for Stop and Frisk

In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court decided that probable cause was not the standard for a stop and frisk. In a departure from the Warren Court’s penchant for liberal-leaning decisions, the Court decided that the standard for a stop and frisk should be a “reasonable suspicion” standard. Since that time, the Court has further found that traffic stops are an extension of the Terry stop, and officers can conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle so long as they believe the search to be reasonably necessary to ensure officer safety.

To be clear, police officers cannot just stop someone and search them willy-nilly. Instead, they must be able to point out actual facts which lend credence to their suspicion that the person was engaging, or planned to engage, in criminal activity. If the stop reveals more evidence, then the officer will have the necessary probable cause to conduct a more extensive search or make an arrest.

If you believe that you were convicted of a crime as a result of stop and frisk which was conducted without reasonable suspicion or if the search exceeded the scope of a simple pat-down, you should contact a Virginia appeals attorney to discuss whether you might be able to have the conviction reversed.

When Can Officers Perform a Terry Stop?

The types of situations which give rise to a Terry stop are not always completely clear, but the Supreme Court has stated that running from the police provides the necessary suspicion to perform a Terry stop. On the other hand, a Terry stop may not unduly delay a person from going about their everyday business. A brief investigatory detention requires reasonable suspicion, but if the officer intends to detain the suspect for 90 minutes, then they need more than just a reasonable suspicion; they must have probable cause. 

What Happens During a Stop and Frisk?

A stop and frisk is a “pat down.” A pat down should be exactly what it sounds like – a quick pat down of the suspect’s clothing. This pat down is nearly identical to the type of search conducted by TSA at the airport. It must be brief and non-intrusive. In the Terry case, officers observed a bulge in the suspect’s pants (not a joke) which they believed to be a weapon. Sure enough, a quick pat down of the suspect revealed that he was carrying a gun.

On the other hand, in Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993), a police officer went too far. In that case, Dickerson was found with a minuscule amount of crack cocaine in his jacket pocket. But an open-handed pat down of the outside of Dickerson’s clothing would not and could not have revealed that he was carrying narcotics on his person. The officer found the crack because he began squeezing his fingers over Dickerson’s jacket. However, when he started squeezing his fingers to find contraband, the officer exceeded the scope of what was permissible. The Supreme Court found the search to be violative of Dickerson’s constitutional privacy rights. Accordingly, the Court’s holding reinforced that, in order to justify anything more than an open-handed pat down, the officer would have needed more than just a reasonable suspicion.

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If you or someone you love have been arrested or charged with a crime on the basis of a stop and frisk search, you need a Fairfax Criminal Defense Attorney who can assert your rights by filing and arguing a motion to suppress the evidence against you. Contact our office now for a Free Consultation with a criminal defense attorney in Fairfax VA. 571-354-6164