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Stop-and-Frisk Law on Searches by Police Officers

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 17, 2024

In California, the stop-and-frisk law called a “Terry stop” has some main rules that law enforcement has to follow based on the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says you have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Stop-and-Frisk Law on Searches by California Police Officers

Law enforcement officers are legally allowed to detain you temporarily in a public place, without a warrant, if there is reasonable suspicion you're involved in illegal behavior.

Further, police officers are also allowed to conduct a general pat-down search for weapons if they believe you may be armed. This “temporary detention” by law enforcement is only based on reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.

For example, perhaps a patrol officer cruising around a known high-drug-activity area observes somebody loitering on a street corner. They see the suspect exchanging something quickly with another person approaching them. The exchange occurred after a brief conservation.

The suspect was wearing baggy clothes that could potentially conceal a weapon. Based on this reasonable suspicion, they decided to conduct a stop-and-frisk search of the suspect. Our California criminal defense attorneys will review this topic in more detail below.

United States Supreme Court – Terry v. Ohio (1968)

Most people understand that police must have probable cause before arresting someone for an alleged crime. Still, many don't know there are state and federal laws prohibiting law enforcement officers from detaining someone without “reasonable suspicion,” and certainly not for an unwarranted stop and frisk.

Perhaps someone who has not engaged in suspicious activity wants to avoid contact with the police. In other words, they don't wish for temporary detention for a pat-down frisk. Under the “Terry” decision, they have this legal right.

If police officers unlawfully force interaction in a Terry stop, any discovered evidence of a crime could be excluded as it can be considered illegally gained incriminating evidence. Put simply, the police can't just temporarily detain you without reasonable suspicion.

What is a Considered “Reasonable Suspicion?”

Without legally overanalyzing it, reasonable suspicion is enough to justify a stop but can't be based on a “hunch.”  There is no random guessing; the constitutional law established under the Terry standard says the police officer must be able to articulate factual observations justifying their stop. Some common examples include:

  • Actions that show a suspect concealing a weapon or contraband;
  • A posted “lookout” for police to alert co-conspirators;
  • Someone “casing” a business for a potential robbery or burglary;
  • Suspect taking evasive action to elude police;
  • Witness descriptions that match a suspect;
  • Erratic suspect behavior or possible under the influence;
  • Exchanging money in high solicitation to prostitution areas.

If the police get incriminating statements from a suspect, they must be able to testify about their suspicious activity. Perhaps there was some racial profiling by police, or they treated the suspect differently due to bias.

What is the “Plain-Feel” Doctrine?

The same laws limit how much an officer making a stop may frisk the suspect. In other words, just because police can justify detaining someone does not mean they can automatically search them. The laws limit frisk situations.

 Again, police officers must have a reason to believe the suspect might have a weapon or contraband. Put simply, not every stop justifies a frisk. The same laws lay out when a police officer can perform a general frisk of someone's body, such as:

  • Police can only pat down the suspect's outer clothing;
  • Police can't reach or grope under their clothing or into pockets, and
  • Police can't seize and search your cell phone.

However, if the police feel something they know is contraband, such as a weapon, they can remove it, which can be used as evidence against them.

The plain-feel doctrine requires police to readily identify an object as a potential weapon or contraband from the plain feel of the pat-down before they can move, manipulate, or remove the felt object for further identification. 

There are situations where overzealous police officers overstep their legal bounds, looking for evidence of drug crimes, theft crimes, or illegal weapons.

What If Your Rights Were Violated During a Stop and Frisk?

You have some legal options if you are the victim of an unlawful stop and frisk. If law enforcement obtained incriminating evidence during a stop and frisk that didn't meet constitutional standards, a criminal lawyer could file certain legal motions discussed below.

What If Your Rights Were Violated During a Stop and Frisk?

A motion to suppress evidence is defined under California Penal Code 1538.5 PC. These are related to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and has an exclusionary rule prohibiting using evidence gained unlawfully. 

A motion to dismiss charges is defined under Penal Code 995 PC. Suppose a court grants a motion to suppress that ban unlawfully gained evidence. In that case, a motion to dismiss the criminal charges can be filed when the remaining evidence does not support the probable cause of the defendant committing the crime. 

If you believe police conducted an illegal stop and frisk, we need to review the specific details to determine possible legal options moving forward.

Early intervention into your case by our law firm could increase the chances of a favorable outcome. Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor for reduced charges or a case dismissal. 

Further, prefiling negotiation with the police detectives and the District Attorney might convince them not to file formal criminal charges in the first place (DA reject). 
Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked Los Angeles criminal defense law firm representing people across Southern California.  Contact our firm for an initial consultation by phone or the contact form. 

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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