Stops and Frisks

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Generally police have the right to make limited contact with citizens that is short of arrest. The standard for this contact varies from jurisidiction to jurisdiction. Spectrumofstops.jpg

United States

In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) the United States Supreme Court stated that the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures did not restrict a police officer's right to make a limited investigatory stop even though the officer did not have probable cause necessary to effect an arrest. The Court held that when a citizen was stopped by a police officer a "stop" had occured for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. However, because the intrusion was less than a full blown arrest, a lower standard of "reasonable suspicision" was required before an officer could make such a stop.

Reasonable suspicion was defined as "specific and articulable facts which taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant" the logical conclusion that "criminal activity is afoot". [1]

More Restrictive State Constitutions

Some states provide for additional protections against unwarrante police intrusion. For instance, in New York, the Supreme Court has concluded that the State Constitution provides heightened scrutiny for stops and frisks. In People v. Debour, 40 NY2d 210 (New York 1976) the New York Supreme Court implemented a more rigorous four-tiered system for stops and frisks.

  • Level 1 - Request for Information - At this level an officer may approach an individual if they have an articulable reason for doing so even though they have neither reasonable suspicion nor probable cause to believe the individual committed a crime. At this stage, the officer is limited in both the types of questions (identity questions are ok) and the manner or tone in which these questions are delivered.
  • Level 2 - Common-Law Right to Inquire - The common-law right to inquire is activated by a founded suspicion that criminal activity is afoot and permits a somewhat greater intrusion in that a policeman is entitled to interfere with a citizen to the extent necessary to gain explanatory information, but short of a forcible seizure
  • Level 3 - Forcible Stop and Frisk - If an officer determines that they have a reasonable suspicion, they may conduct a stop and frisk.
  • Level 4 - Arrest A police officer in New York may arrest an individual if they have a probably cause to believe the individual has committed a crime.[2]

See Rights of the Accused