The Fourth Amendment prohibits the police from committing “unreasonable searches and seizures” or searching individuals’ property without first obtaining a search warrant. But as we all know, police in Sonoma and Napa counties routinely stop people on the street and pat down their bodies in a search for weapons, drugs and other contraband.
It might seem like a contradiction that the police can stop and frisk you even though the Constitution says they cannot. The fact is, the intersection between criminal law and civil liberty law creates a lot of complexities and exceptions. As a California resident, you need to know what your rights are regarding stop and frisks.
The Terry Rule
In a 1968 ruling called Terry v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police do not violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights when they stop the person on the street and pat them down when:
- The officer has a reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a crime, is committing one or is about to, AND
- The officer has a reasonable belief that the individual is armed and dangerous.
The Court considered these so-called “Terry stops” detentions, not full arrests, though the individual is not free to walk away. However, the stop should only last as long as necessary to ask the person a few questions and search for weapons, or the detention arguably evolves into an arrest. Also, the only search the officer may conduct is a pat-down of the person over their clothing. For anything more invasive, such as a search of the person’s bag, the police would need a warrant or an exception to the law, such as consent from the suspect.
Defending your rights
On the street, there might not be much you can do to prevent a police officer from violating your rights. The time to assert your rights is later, in court. Discuss what happened prior to your arrest with your defense attorney. They will know the signs of an illegal search and when to fight to get evidence suppressed.