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Can Virginia police officers randomly stop and frisk people?

On Behalf of | Jul 9, 2024 | Criminal Defense

Police officers may find evidence of criminal activity through many different tactics. Sometimes, people who experience crime come to the police station to file a report. They may have already gathered evidence on their own, including witness testimony and security camera footage.

Other times, police officers have to build a criminal case from scratch. They suspect someone of criminal activity, but they have to find adequate proof in order to justify an arrest and arraignment. A prosecutor generally wants to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt before they agree to charge someone.

One of the many ways that police officers obtain criminal evidence is through searches of individuals and their property. Sometimes, police officers physically search individuals who they encounter in public locations. A stop-and-frisk encounter or Terry stop is one of the most controversial interactions someone could have with a police officer. Are such encounters legal in Virginia?

Officers can’t randomly frisk people

It could be very intrusive and disruptive for police officers to randomly detain members of the public for physical searches. Officers could spend the entire day harassing people in a certain neighborhood and arresting anyone with questionable items in their possession.

Thankfully, the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Searches of someone’s body are among the most invasive police searches possible. It could be quite easy for police officers to abuse the authority to search someone’s body. Therefore, both Virginia state laws and federal court rulings have implemented restrictions on stop and frisk encounters.

People sometimes refer to these interactions as Terry stops because of a prior federal Supreme Court ruling. Police officers must have reasonable suspicion for the physical search of an individual’s person. An officer needs to suspect not simply illegal activity but rather the presence of a dangerous weapon.

Absent the reasonable suspicion of a weapon, an officer cannot search someone without their permission. Unless police officers intend to take someone into state custody, they cannot search a person during a one-on-one encounter without reasonable suspicion of a weapon.

Understanding the rules that limit police searches can benefit those accused of breaking the law. A defense attorney can sometimes prevent the courts from hearing evidence obtained through an illegal search or another kind of violation of someone’s rights.

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