Stop and Frisk | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Law

Stop and frisk refers to a “pat down” search of a person for weapons; only lawful if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe the suspect is armed.

Also known as a “Terry Stop” after the landmark SCOTUS decision in Terry v. Ohio.

Stop and frisk is a common practice used by law enforcement officers in the United States to search a person for weapons or other items that may pose a threat to public safety. The practice involves a brief detention of the person followed by a “pat down” search for weapons or other items that may be used in a crime.

The legality of stop-and-frisk searches is governed by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Under this amendment, a stop-and-frisk search is only lawful if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the suspect is armed and dangerous.

The concept of stop-and-frisk searches was first established by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Terry v. Ohio (1968). In this case, the Court held that police officers may stop and frisk a person if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity and may be armed and dangerous.

In order to establish reasonable suspicion, the officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect is involved in criminal activity and may be armed. This may include things like the suspect’s behavior, the time and location of the stop, and any information that the officer has received from other sources.

While stop-and-frisk searches can be an effective tool for law enforcement officials in preventing crime and keeping the public safe, they have also been the subject of controversy and criticism. Critics argue that the practice can lead to racial profiling and discrimination, with people of color being disproportionately targeted for searches.

In response to these concerns, many jurisdictions have implemented reforms to ensure that stop-and-frisk searches are conducted in a fair and unbiased manner. Some of these reforms include increasing transparency and accountability in the use of stop-and-frisk searches, training officers on how to conduct searches in a lawful and respectful manner, and establishing clear guidelines for when and how stop-and-frisk searches can be used.

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Last Modified: 04/13/2023


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