You have the right to a certain expectation of privacy up to a certain point, even when interacting with law enforcement officers or subject to an investigation. There are limits to how aggressively the police can search you when they suspect that you may have broken the law.
Unless you give them permission or they obtain a warrant, the Fourth Amendment and many prior federal court rulings protect your basic civil rights during an encounter with law enforcement officers. There are rules about when police officers can search your vehicle or your home, and many people have learned about their right not to let a police officer into their home.
What about your body? When is it legal for a police officer to frisk you or conduct a search of your person during an interaction that has not led to your arrest?
Bodily searches usually require specific justification
Searching someone before they enter state custody is part of the standard intake procedure, but those not under arrest still have the right to privacy regarding their own bodies. Police officers will often try to work around the very limiting rules about bodily searches by asking for permission. They will ask someone if they will allow the officer to quickly pat them down. Once the person agrees, since the officer finds something, that individual can face criminal charges.
What many people talking to a police officer failed to understand is that there is really only one justification to search someone without permission or a warrant. The officer needs to have a reasonable suspicion to believe that the person may have a weapon. Racial profiling is not a reasonable excuse to search someone’s person, but an officer who saw them put a knife in their pocket earlier would have reason to search.
Some officers will perform bodily searches when they have no reason to suspect the presence of a weapon nor the permission of the individual involved. Sometimes, the people that they arrest in those questionable circumstances can use their misconduct as part of their defense strategy. When officers violate someone’s rights or deviate from established best practices, then the courts may not be able to use the evidence that they gathered.
Learning more about your rights and asserting them when you encounter law enforcement officers can reduce your risk of facing criminal charges and also strengthen your position when you plan to defend against them.