Stop and Frisk

Stop and Frisk

Stop and frisk is a widely debated policing practice that has sparked controversies and discussions revolving around civil rights, privacy, and racial profiling. It’s helpful to understand what it is, why it’s problematic, and what steps to take in case your rights are violated.


What Is a Stop and Frisk?

What Is a Stop and Frisk?

A stop and frisk, often referred to as a ‘pat-down,’ is a type of external search conducted by law enforcement officers during a stop. The purpose of a stop and frisk is to check for weapons or other items that might pose a danger to the officer, themselves, or others. During a stop and frisk, the officer pats down the outside of the clothing to feel for any suspicious objects.

It’s essential to understand that a stop and frisk is not a full search, and the officer is only allowed to touch the outer garments. They should not reach into your pockets or any concealed areas unless they can establish proper reasoning for doing so. If an officer feels a weapon during the pat-down, they are permitted to reach inside a pocket or garment to check and seize it.

How the Practice Was Established: Terry v. Ohio

In October 1963, Cleveland police officer Martin McFadden was patrolling the downtown area when he observed three men – John Terry, Richard Chilton, and Carl Katz – lingering near a store and possibly “casing” the location for a potential burglary. 


Although their behavior aroused suspicion, it would not have been enough to obtain a search warrant. Nonetheless, Officer McFadden approached the group, identified himself, and conducted a brief search of their persons, or a “frisk,” to ensure they were not armed.

During the frisk, McFadden discovered concealed weapons on Terry and Chilton, leading to their arrest for carrying concealed firearms. Terry later appealed his conviction, arguing that the officer’s search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government. The Court reasoned that police officers should be allowed to stop individuals if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or will commit a crime. 

The Court held the police are entitled to frisk a person for weapons if they have reason to believe the individual is armed and dangerous.

The ruling in Terry v. Ohio set the precedent for what is now known as the “stop and frisk” procedure. While it was intended to strike a balance between public safety and citizens’ constitutional rights, the practice remains contentious and oftentimes controversial.

Stop and Frisk Leads to Racial Profiling 

A 2011 New York City report revealed that over 80% of all documented stops involved either Black or Hispanic individuals, while those communities together only made up about 50% of the city’s population. 

Critics assert that this disproportionate targeting of minorities violates basic human rights, fuels social tension, and erodes trust in law enforcement. Additionally, they argue that racial profiling is an ineffective policing strategy, as it distracts officers from actively pursuing more reliable leads.

What Can You Do if the Police Violate Your Rights? 

If you believe the police have violated your rights, follow these steps:

  • Stay calm and cooperative: During the encounter, stay calm, and don’t resist or flee. Ask the officer if you’re free to leave. If not, ask for the reason behind the stop and frisk.
  • Document the incident: After the encounter, immediately jot down the details while they are fresh in your mind. This documentation should include the date, time, location, the officer’s badge number, patrol car number, and description of events.
  • Gather evidence: Collect any available evidence, such as surveillance footage or eyewitness accounts, to support your claims.
  • File a complaint: File a formal complaint with the police department or the appropriate oversight agency. Be sure to include all relevant details and evidence.
  • Contact a criminal defense lawyer: If you believe your rights have been violated during a stop and frisk, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you navigate the legal process and pursue justice.

By contacting an attorney early on in the process, you’ll have a legal advocate who can review what happened and offer pertinent legal advice.

Motion To Suppress

Additionally, if you have been subjected to an unlawful stop and frisk encounter, several legal avenues are available to challenge the legality of the police action. The most common legal response to an unlawful stop is a motion to suppress.

When a motion to suppress is granted, any evidence that was obtained illegally is excluded from the case.

For example, if you were illegally stopped and frisked and the officer found drugs or weapons on you, the evidence would be inadmissible in court if the motion to suppress is granted. This could lead to the charges against you being dismissed or, at the very least, create a stronger position for negotiation, such as a plea agreement with the prosecution.

Contact a Qualified Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney

The stop and frisk policing practice continues to be controversial and far-reaching. Understanding your rights and being prepared to assert them is essential if you ever find yourself in a stop and frisk situation. If you believe that law enforcement officers have violated your rights, don’t hesitate to seek professional advice and assistance from a trusted Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer.