When can police stop and frisk you on the street?

Every U.S. citizen has the right to be free from unreasonable stop and frisk actions from police officers.  However, police do have the right to stop and frisk individuals as long as they have reasonable suspicion.  According to the Supreme Court, police officers have the right to stop individuals on the street if the officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is engaged in criminal activity.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

The reasonable suspicion standard is laid out in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, one of the most commonly cited cases in the area of Fourth Amendment search and seizure law. Not to be confused with probable cause, reasonable suspicion exists if an officer can point to “specific articulable facts” that an individual committed a crime or is about to commit a crime. For example, if an individual is seen running away from a crime scene or casing a store numerous times without going inside, an officer is likely justified in making the stop. This standard (reasonable suspicion) only requires that officers believe that a person may be involved in a criminal activity prior to being able to stop and question them.

What is a Justified Frisk?

After an officer makes a stop based on reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed or about to be committed, the officer cannot automatically frisk the suspect. To justify a frisk, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the individual is armed or dangerous. For example, if a police officer sees a bulge in a suspect’s pocket shaped like a gun, the officer may conduct a frisk, which is a quick pat-down of the person’s outer clothing. 

When do police cross the line and use excessive force?

Police officers in all states are granted authority to use force to accomplish lawful objectives, such as to conduct an investigatory stop, arrest someone, enter a home to serve a warrant or make an arrest, and detain suspects. When police officers abuse their authority and use excessive force, the injured parties can bring causes of action pursuant to their rights secured to them under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The central question in all excessive force cases is whether the police officer’s conduct was reasonable under the circumstances. There are several factors to consider when determining whether an officer’s use of force was excessive, including:

  1. The severity of the suspect’s alleged crime.
  2. Whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or the public.
  3. Whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or attempting to escape.

Ultimately, an officer may use only that force which is both reasonable and necessary to secure an arrest or detention. Anything more is classified as excessive force.

When can police use deadly force?

The central issue in most deadly force cases is whether the use of deadly force was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.  In particular, the court outlined three circumstances when an officer can use deadly force:

  1. When the officer is threatened with a deadly weapon.
  2. When the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm or death to the officer or to another.
  3. When the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime involving threatened or actual serious physical harm or death to another person.

If the above circumstances are not met, using lethal force against a citizen is considered unreasonable and excessive. The use of deadly force is always the last resort.