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When can police officers stop and frisk someone in public?

On Behalf of | May 5, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Police officers have to abide by certain standards or risk making mistakes that undermine the state’s ability to prosecute people. Certain rules established by local police departments and crucial court rulings determine what officers can and cannot do during an interaction with a member of the public. There are restrictions on searches and also on officers detaining people that stem from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. People have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons and property.

Taking someone into state custody usually involves a search to ensure that no contraband enters state facilities. However, some officers will stop individuals on the street and then seek to physically search their person, even though they are not under arrest. When can an officer conduct a stop-and-frisk search in Virginia?

Terry stops are subject to strict rules

In the law enforcement community, people also refer to stop-and-frisk encounters as Terry stops. Terry stops have been the focus of numerous court cases, which is where they get their name. During an interaction in a public space, a police officer can search an individual by patting them down if they have probable cause to suspect that someone has a weapon.

Suspicion of drugs or other illegal items will not justify a pat-down search during a public encounter with an individual. Only the presumed presence of a dangerous weapon gives an officer justification to physically search an individual who they do not intend to place under arrest.

Illegal searches can lead to inappropriate charges

When police officers violate someone’s rights, the outcome could potentially be criminal charges against the individual. Officers may use what they find during a questionable search as justification to arrest someone and recommend that a prosecutor bring charges against them.

However, criminal defense attorneys can potentially help people fight charges based on inappropriate Terry stops. Those who know their rights will be less likely to make mistakes during an interaction with the police officer, such as giving them permission to perform a pat-down search. Discussing an encounter with police officers in depth when seeking legal guidance can sometimes help people arrive at a viable defense strategy related to pending criminal charges.


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