What Is Stop-and-Frisk? Is It Ever Legal?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on August 13, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The stop-and-frisk tactics of the NYPD were halted Monday by a federal judge's ruling that the practice violated the constitutional rights of those who were targeted, mainly minorities.

Calling the New York Police Department's practice a "policy of indirect racial profiling," Judge Shira A. Scheindlin called for broad reforms to end the abuse, including the use of "body-worn cameras" for specific officers, reports The New York Times.

But this isn't the end of stop-and-frisk in New York City, and the general practice may still be legal elsewhere in the nation.

What Is a Stop-and-Frisk?

As you may know, police officers generally cannot search someone without a warrant or probable cause because it would violate their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

A "stop-and-frisk" is a way for officers, without a warrant or probable cause, to stop an individual and do a cursory search (i.e., a pat-down or frisk) without necessarily violating their constitutional rights.

The practice was first introduced in a U.S. Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio, where the Court determined that officers could briefly detain someone (i.e., "stop") to investigate a crime if there was reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Once legally stopped, a cop may briefly pat-down a person to check for weapons (i.e., "frisk") if there is also reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and poses a risk to officer safety.

Put together, a stop-and-frisk can be legal as long as there is both reasonable suspicion of criminal activity as well as reasonable suspicion that they are armed and pose a danger to the investigating officers.

NYPD's Tactic Was Unconstitutional

Although a stop-and-frisk can be legal, Judge Scheindlin found that the way NYPD officers conducted them "demonstrated widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment" as well as equal protection of the law, reports The New York Times.

The NYPD violated many residents' Fourth Amendment rights by either performing a stop-and-frisk without reasonable suspicion or exceeding the limits of their brief frisks without having additional probable cause to search.

New York police also used race as a primary factor in stopping residents, targeting almost exclusively black and Hispanic persons -- a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and tantamount to "indirect racial profiling."

A person's race or other general hunches are not legitimate ways to justify a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; officers must have a particularized suspicion based on articulable facts in order to legally perform a stop-and-frisk.

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the city will appeal Judge Scheindlin's decision.

If you feel you've been the target of an illegal search, contact an experienced civil rights attorney in your area to discuss your options.

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