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Stop and Frisk - Further Readings

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The situation in which a police officer who is suspicious of an individual detains the person and runs his hands lightly over the suspect's outer garments to determine if the person is carrying a concealed weapon.

One of the most controversial police procedures is the stop and frisk search. This type of limited search occurs when police confront a suspicious person in an effort to prevent a crime from taking place. The police frisk (pat down) the person for weapons and question the person.

A stop is different from an arrest. An arrest is a lengthy process in which the suspect is taken to the police station and booked, whereas a stop involves only a temporary interference with a person's liberty. If the officer uncovers further evidence during the frisk, the stop may lead to an actual arrest, but if no further evidence is found, the person is released.

Unlike a full search, a frisk is generally limited to a patting down of the outer clothing. If the officer feels what seems to be a weapon, the officer may then reach inside the person's clothing. If no weapon is felt, the search may not intrude further than the outer clothing.

Though police had long followed the practice of stop and frisk, it was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court evaluated it under the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under FOURTH AMENDMENT case law, a constitutional SEARCH AND SEIZURE must be based on PROBABLE CAUSE. A stop and frisk was usually conducted on the basis of reasonable suspicion, a somewhat lower standard than probable cause.

In 1968 the Supreme Court addressed the issue in TERRY V. OHIO, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889. In Terry an experienced plainclothes officer observed three men acting suspiciously; they were walking back and forth on a street and peering into a particular store window. The officer concluded that the men were preparing to rob a nearby store and approached them. He identified himself as a police officer and asked for their names. Unsatisfied with their responses, he then subjected one of the men to a frisk, which produced a gun for which the suspect had no permit. In this case the officer did not have a warrant nor did he have probable cause. He did suspect that the men were "casing" the store and planning a ROBBERY. The defendants argued the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment because it was not supported by probable cause.

The Supreme Court rejected the defendants' arguments. The Court noted that stops and frisks are considerably less intrusive than full-blown arrests and searches. It also observed that the interests in crime prevention and in police safety require that the police have some leeway to act before full probable cause has developed. The Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement is sufficiently flexible to permit an officer to investigate the situation.

The Court was also concerned that requiring probable cause for a frisk would put an officer in unwarranted danger during the investigation. The "sole justification" for a frisk, said the Court, is the "protection of the police officer and others nearby." Because of this narrow scope, a frisk must be "reasonably designed to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer." As long as an officer has reasonable suspicion, a stop and frisk is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

After Terry this type of police encounter became known as a "Terry stop" or an "investigatory detention." Police may stop and question suspicious persons, pat them down for weapons, and even subject them to nonintrusive search procedures such as the use of metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs. While a suspect is detained, a computer search can be performed to see if the suspect is wanted for crimes. If so, he or she may be arrested and searched incident to that arrest.

Investigatory detention became an important law enforcement technique in the 1980s as police sought to curtail the trafficking of illegal drugs. In United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 109 S. Ct. 1581, 104 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that police have the power to detain, question, and investigate suspected drug couriers. The case involved a Terry stop at an international airport, during which the defendant aroused suspicion by conforming to a controversial "drug courier profile" developed by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Court said that the DEA profile gave the officer reasonable suspicion, "which is more than a mere hunch but less than probable cause."

The Supreme Court has become increasingly permissive regarding what constitutes reasonable suspicion. In Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 110 S. Ct. 2412, 110 L. Ed. 2d 301 (1990), the Court upheld a Terry stop of an automobile based solely on an anonymous tip that described a certain car that would be at a specific location. Police went to the site, found the vehicle, and detained the driver. The police then found marijuana and cocaine in the automobile. The Court observed that it was a "close case" but concluded that the tip and its corroboration were sufficiently reliable to justify the investigatory stop that ultimately led to the arrest of the driver and the seizure of the drugs.

However, the Court retreated from this holding in Florida v. J. L., 529 U.S. 266, 120 S.Ct. 1375, 146 L.Ed.2d 254 (U.S. 2000), in which it ruled that an anonymous tip identifying a person who is carrying a gun is not, without more reason, sufficient to justify a police officer's stop and frisk of that person. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the tip, stating that a young black male was standing at a particular bus stop, wearing a plaid shirt, and carrying a gun, lacked sufficient reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make a Terry stop. After announcing its decision in Florida v. J. L., the Court vacated two other state court decisions with similar fact patterns, one from Ohio (Morrison v. Ohio, 529 U.S. 1050, 120 S.Ct. 1552, 146 L.Ed.2d 457 [U.S. 2000]) and one from Wisconsin (Williams v. Wisconsin, 529 U.S. 1050, 120 S.Ct. 1552, 146 L.Ed.2d 457 U.S. [2000]).

In the Ohio case, the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld a Terry stop that was based on a phone call to the police from an anonymous informant who stated that there were two males walking westward on a particular avenue in a particular area and that one of the males was carrying a weapon in his pocket. According to the Ohio Court of Appeals, the Terry stop was supported by sufficient reasonable suspicion because significant aspects of the anonymous caller's predictions were verified. In the Wisconsin case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the police had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop based on an anonymous tip that individuals were dealing drugs from a vehicle parked within view of the tipster and their confirmation, within four minutes of the tip, of readily observable information offered by the tipster, even though the officers did not independently observe any suspicious activity. In Florida v. J. L., however, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that an accurate description of a subject's readily observable location and attributes does not show that the tipster had knowledge of concealed criminal activity.

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over 8 years ago

Again our country shows it's racist and disrespectfully hand! NYPD stop and frisk policy turns out to be stop and frisk and disrespect black people! WHO IS NOT SURPRISE? Only 2% of the stop resulted in something illegal. But that does not stop the NYPD these are black people . America's Boogie Man" ! The constitution for people of color does not apply! None of the Supreme Court Justice that see reports on TV and news paper say anything about the abuse! There is no white leadership or law enforcement leadership stepping in and saying this is unconstitutional! White serial child molester and abuser are respected by law enforcement more so then black innocent citizen! After Columbine High School massacre occurred where two white teens murder 14 white people 1 black. There was no stop and frisk of white Americans! John Wayne Casey white murder 33 white young men afterwards their was no stop and frisk of white men policy! Given the history of white hatred and police brutality against black citizen! Only a idiot would allow law enforcement to stop and frisk just black people! Knowing their will be that one black stupid person that is going to be fed up and run! Innocent or not and the answer will be death for running! I thought he had a gun" I was in fear of my life" so we shot 41 to 50 bullets at a unarmed citizen SO -SAD TO -BAD should not have run! Where is the ACLU! Where is the President! Mayor Nutter ran of stop and frisk IDIOT! Just like pass Mayor Wilson Goode who burn down a black neighborhood and murder 11 unarmed blacks! Just because of one man had a warrant! Or the racist stupid sick lowlife Frank" Rizzo who murder unborn beat American citizen! This is a sad and tragic testament to the diminished moral fiber of American society. I am disgusted by this senseless stop and frisk of innocent Americans! Depriving blacks of the love and comfort of growing up without respect. I am deeply saddened. Today black men and women are fighting and dying in two wars for the freedom and right of these racist disrespectful cops SHAME ON US ALL!

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about 8 years ago

Tyrone is probably racist towards white people and should read the real news and not make his own opinions, If you run from the police, it only says one thing and that is your armed. The police only believe anyone whether black, white, or any other race is running because they have a weapon and willing to use it, the police are here to help keep these criminals off the street, and not hurt or kill innocent victims.

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over 7 years ago


It is an insult to remember Frank Rizzo! He was a nasty sick lowlife racist that took too long to DIED! Many people are happy he is dead and only wish he died a horrible death. With allot of suffering!!!! The scars he left to the citizen of Philly still hurt to this day!

News flash: Frank Rizzo was an absolutely terrible Mayor. And, it was not just because he was an inveterate racist, who lined up black men naked against the wall while the press watched, or other wonderful things. Unfortunately, racist urban mayors exist throughout much of our Country's unfortunate history. But there is a reason that despite that, Rizzo still generally is talked about as one of the worst Mayors of all time.

As one quick example, Rizzo is basically single-handedly responsible for setting PGW down the path to debt and destruction that it is currently on. Why? Because he decided loading it up with his buddies was more important than... providing gas. He also presided over huge population losses, scared people away from Philly in the Bicentennial, etc., etc., etc. He was also not that book smart! Today his buddy still enjoy the jobs he got them….Many were unqualified and just as racist and ignorant as Rizzo!

If Rizzo was alive he would be thankful for Mayor Nutter…because of the Stop & Frisk program. The targets black children and adults! If GOD is the judge of a man life …..Rizzo is in hell!