DEAR SHERIFF: “Stop and Frisk” by officers has been in the news lately. What exactly is “Stop and Frisk”?
READER: The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution protects us from government using “unreasonable search and seizures.” Through the courts the police are guided in what is reasonable and what is not. In answering this question, my desire is to give the public a bit of insight into court rulings and police officers’ attempts at investigating criminal activity while protecting the constitutional rights of persons.
In 1968, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio, and refined a number of times since then through other cases, that the police may stop a suspicious person if the police can “articulate that criminal activity was afoot.”
Mere suspicion cannot be just a hunch. However, it is less than “probable cause” needed for an arrest. The stop is a temporary detention, not an arrest. The scope of the detention is to quickly investigate whether the person stopped is about to, or has, committed a crime. The person detained is not free to leave. During the stop, if the officer develops probable cause that a crime has been committed, the person can be arrested. If no probable cause exists, then the person is allowed to leave. Typically the stop is defined in minutes, not hours.
As an example, a report was received of a woman being assaulted in a shopping center parking lot. A description of the suspect and victim, along with the vehicle description and direction of travel, was broadcast to police officers. Within moments, an officer observes the vehicle fitting the description with two occupants fitting the description provided and near the location of the assault.
The officer does not yet have probable cause. However, the officer can articulate, based on the contemporaneous facts provided, that this vehicle may contain a suspect/victim of a crime. The stop is justified as reasonable. Upon stopping the vehicle, and briefly assessing the situation, the officer finds that this is not the correct vehicle and the occupants were not the suspect/victim. The officer politely explains the situation and the reason they were stopped and allows them to continue on their way. In this case, there was a stop, but no frisk.
A frisk is an action by an officer on a person whom the officer has briefly detained, as described above. The scope of the frisk is merely for officer safety and to search for weapons in the outer clothing. The courts have held that it is reasonable for an officer who has reason to believe, and can articulate, that the person detained is armed and believes his personal safety is in jeopardy, the officer may “pat down” or frisk the outer clothing of the person for weapons only. If a weapon is found, the officer may seize the weapon during the duration of the stop.
The world of criminal activity is a dangerous place. Officers risk their lives daily as they serve to keep our communities safe. “Stop and frisk,” a reasonable search and seizure with strict guidelines, helps to keep our public and officers safe.
Ask-the-Sheriff a question by emailing Sheriff Brad Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org.