What is a Stop-and-Frisk Search?

If you live in New York, chances are you have heard about the police tactic of “stop-and-frisk” searches. These searches have been the subject of extensive controversy throughout the years, particularly in big cities where the practice is incredibly common. But what is a stop-and-frisk, exactly, and why do so many people get up in arms about them?

Defining a Stop-and-Frisk

The term “stop-and-frisk” refers to a kind of search performed by police on regular citizens in public areas. In a stop-and-frisk, a police officer will stop a person who is out in public and who they believe is acting suspiciously. They will then conduct a frisk of that person, which is a cursory search of their person and any items they are carrying. While a stop-and-frisk is not considered an invasive search, it does require passing their hands over the person’s clothing to search for potentially concealed items.

While a stop-and-frisk can involve searching a person’s pockets, a police officer cannot typically conduct a more invasive search unless they discover something to justify it. This means that a police officer would not be allowed to confiscate or search someone’s phone without their permission, nor would it allow them to conduct a strip search or cavity search. Going any further than a simple frisk without probable cause of a crime would potentially violate a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights.


What Makes a Stop-and-Frisk Special?


From a legal perspective, a stop-and-frisk is considered special because it requires a lower standard of evidence to conduct a stop-and-frisk than a more typical search. To legally conduct a stop-and-frisk, a police officer needs only to demonstrate that they had a “reasonable suspicion” that the person had potentially committed a crime. This is a much lower standard than the “probable cause” standard required of more formal searches of a person or their property.

In practical terms, this means that it is very hard to question a stop-and-frisk search that remains within appropriate boundaries. The standard is so low that only the most flagrant overreach tends to be questioned by the court, and even then police officers are often given a great deal of leeway when it comes to their personal judgment. After all, it can be difficult to question whether a police officer’s suspicion of a particular person was “reasonable” after the fact.

Why Are Stop-and-Frisk Searches Controversial?

Aside from people being offended at being stopped and searched while just walking down the street, stop-and-frisk searches have been broadly criticized for how they are implemented by police departments. The New York Police Department, for example, was found to have engaged in unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices that disproportionately targeted minority groups. In fact, the NYPD only formally ended the last part of their stop-and-frisk program this year.

Aside from that, even though a stop-and-frisk is considered relatively innocuous compared to a full search and seizure, it is still a significant violation of people’s personal space. The fact that it does not (usually) arise to the level of a potential constitutional issue does not make it any more comfortable to go through. And, sometimes, a police officer does go too far, resulting in a potential violation of a citizen’s constitutional liberties.

If you or someone you know has been arrested for a criminal offense, you will need legal counsel to help you preserve your rights and work to get the best possible outcome for your matter. A New York criminal defense lawyer, who is experienced in handling criminal cases of all sorts, can advise you of your legal rights and will fight for your best interests in court. If you or your loved one has been arrested, contact the Suffolk County criminal defense attorneys at McGuire, Peláez and Bennett at (631) 348-1702.

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