Richard has taught college Criminal Justice subjects and has a master's degree in criminal justice.
Stop and Frisk
As you are walking home one bright sunny day, a police officer approaches you, tells you to put your hands up in the air and then runs his hands lightly over your body. This is what is known as a stop and frisk.
A stop and frisk is a when a police officer stops and questions an individual because he has a reasonable suspicion this individual may be involved in some form of criminal activity. If the officer feels the suspect may be armed, he can conduct a pat down of the person's outer clothing for a weapon.
What the heck is going on? Can he legally do this? Doesn't this violate the 4th Amendment rights against search and seizure?
Legality of Stop and Frisk
According to the Supreme Court of the United States ruling in the case of Terry v. Ohio (1968), it is legal and does not violate an individual's 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
This is the background on that ruling. In October 1963, veteran police officer Martin McFadden of the Cleveland Police Department observed two men acting peculiar as they walked back and forth in front of a jewelry store. As he watched the two men he noticed that they would stop in front of the store, look inside, and then move down the street. They did this a number of times, and McFadden became suspicious of their actions.
With over 39 years of law enforcement experience, Officer McFadden felt there may be criminal activity afoot. He approached the two men, identified himself as a police officer, and patted the two men down for weapons. In the process of patting them down, he found a pistol in the pocket of John Terry and a revolver in the pocket of the other.
Officer McFadden arrested both men and charged them with carrying concealed weapons. Consequently, they were both found guilty and sentenced to three years in jail. Terry appealed his conviction on the basis that his 4th Amendment rights were violate by an unlawful search and seizure. His appeal was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1968.
In an 8-1 decision the justices agreed with his conviction, saying that under the circumstances a search was reasonable and the weapon discovered during the pat down could be used as evidence against Terry.
In writing the opinion for the majority, Chief Justice Warren noted that in this particular case the stop was based on officer McFadden's training, experience, and knowledge and that he had reasonable suspicion the suspects may be been planning a robbery and may be armed. It was necessary for his protection and others to take measures to discover the true facts and neutralize the threat if any was discovered.
He went on to say that each future case will have to be decided on its own merits but when a police officer observes unusual conduct that leads him to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, he may make reasonable inquires, and if nothing dispels his initial suspicions, he is entitled to conduct a limited search of the outer clothing of the suspect for any weapons that might be used to assault him.
Stop and frisk had been used by police officer for years before the Terry v. Ohio case but this case legalized the practice and established guidelines to ensure an individual's 4th Amendment rights were not violated. These brief investigative stops became known as 'Terry stops' after the Supreme Court ruling.
There is very little statistical data available on the use of the stop and frisk procedure but the 1999 class action suit of Daniels, et al v. the City of New York sheds some light on the practice by the New York City Police Department.
The suit alleged that the NYC police used the stop and frisk mostly on minority citizens and was based on racial profiling more than on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The case was settled in 2011 and required the police department to comply with anti-racial profiling policies and that officers engaged in stop and frisk activities must document the reasonable suspicion that the stop was based on and also the race of the individual stopped.
Data from the New York City Civil Liberties Union web site shows the following statistics for 2014:
- New Yorkers were stopped by the police 46,235 times
- 38,051 were totally innocent (82%)
- 24,777 were black (55%)
- 12,662 were Latino (29%)
- 5,536 were white (12%)
These numbers are down dramatically from 2011 (the highest number of stops):
- New Yorkers were stopped by the police 685,724 times
- 605,328 were totally innocent (88%)
- 350,743 were black (53%)
- 223,740 were Latino (34%)
- 61,805 were white (9%)
- 341,581 were aged 14-24 (51%)
These statistics are only a small representation of stop and frisk activities by one police department. These statistics do suggest, though, that with proper supervision and public awareness of the legality and guidelines in place for a stop and frisk, police officers may be less likely to abuse this power.
A police officer can stop you and pat your outer clothing down for a weapon if he has reasonable suspicion that you may be involved in criminal activity. These stops are called stop and frisk, also known as Terry stops. This exception to the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure is based on the landmark Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio.
While there is very little statistical data available on police use of the stop and frisk, one law suit in NYC showed that there is possible abuse of the power when supervision and public awareness is lacking.
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