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What is a Stop-and-Frisk Search and is it Legal

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that people have a right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures, and also sets forth the conditions necessary for a search warrant to be issued. However, despite the language of the Fourth Amendment, people are routinely searched when stopped by the police either during a traffic stop or some other encounter on the street. Any search without a warrant is presumed to be unreasonable, but there are a number of exceptions that apply to permit warrantless searches.

Probably the most common form of search is what is referred to as a Terry-stop or a stop-and-frisk. A Terry-stop happens when an officer observes someone committing what he or she suspects may be a crime and stops the person to investigate. The officer can pat down the suspect checking for guns, knives, or other dangerous weapons.  However, everything the officer finds during the search may not be admissible. The Louisiana Supreme Court has upheld the suppression of two small objects felt in a defendant’s pocket during a pat down search for weapons.[1] The officer could not identify the objects as either weapons or anything else illegal so he took them out to make a visual inspection. The Court held that the search went beyond what was allowed during a Terry-stop and prevented the objects from being used as evidence at trial. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that items other than weapons can be seized during a pat down can be seized and used at trial if they are immediately identifiable by touch, but the officer cannot squeeze or otherwise manipulate an item to try and determine what it is.[2]

A Terry search is not be limited to a stop and frisk of the person, but may extended to include a protective search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle if an officer possesses ‘‘a reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts . . . that the suspect is dangerous and . . . may gain immediate control of weapons.’’[3] However, if there is no evidence of a weapon or crime within plain view, the police may have exceeded their authority if search a vehicle and any evidence recovered from the search may be subject to being suppressed.

If you believe that you have may have been improperly searched during an encounter with the police, or that evidence against you may have been improperly obtained, call our office today for a free consultation. We regularly move to suppress improperly obtained evidence in order to put our clients in the best possible position for defending the charges against them. Call (225) 384-6760 to schedule a consultation.


[1] State v. Boyer, 2007-0476, pp. 22-24 (La.10/16/07), 967 So.2d 458.
[2] Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 113 S.Ct. 2130, 124 L.Ed.2d 334 (1993).
[3] Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983) (Officer saw hunting knife on floor of vehicle and searched remainder of passenger compartment).