Is “Stop and Frisk” On The Way Out?

In the wake of a recent decision by a federal district court judge in New York holding that the state’s “stop and frisk” policy violates the United States Constitution, the country is abuzz with discussion of the concept of “stop and frisk.” This post will briefly discuss the history behind the policy, explain the concept, and analyze what the future may hold for the forty-five-year-old legal doctrine.

The “stop and frisk” policy first came about in a 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. Up until that point, under the Fourth Amendment, an officer needed probable cause to detain someone to ask them questions or search their belongings. However, the Terry decision created a new rule that only required “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity before an officer could briefly stop a person and ask him questions. Along with this “stop,” the Court held that the officer could also perform a limited pat-down of the person, to ensure that they didn’t have any weapons on them. Thus the term “stop and frisk.”

Reasonable suspicion is a much easier legal standard to meet than probable cause. So under the “stop and frisk” policy, police are able to stop people for less obvious reasons, allowing for a more subjective determination of wrongdoing.

The New York court held that the “stop and frisk” policy was being enforced in a racially discriminatory manner, disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic people. Intuitively, this makes sense if you can believe that police suspect Blacks and Hispanics more than other races. This is because police can selectively choose who looks “suspicious” and, given the lower threshold required to stop that person, police can almost always cite some fact or set of facts that give rise to a “reasonable suspicion.” The result is that the “stop and frisk” policy ends up being applied against Blacks and Hispanics more than other racial groups.

It seems obvious that the Court, back in 1968, felt that “stop and frisk” was a good balance between individual rights and the need to deter crime. However, the policy has recently come under attack being less of a deterrent than originally thought. Social scientists point to a lack of hard evidence suggesting that less crimes are committed because officers are able to conduct “stop and frisk” stops. Even though crime has decreased over the decades since “stop and frisk” was implemented, there could be numerous causes.

The fact that the science does not support the policy’s effectiveness combined with the recent finding that the policy is applied in a racially discriminatory manner, might signal that the tide is turning on the stop and frisk doctrine.

If you have been charged with a criminal offense, it’s a serious matter. You should have an experienced criminal defense lawyer by your side to ensure that you are well represented and treated fairly throughout the process. I strongly believe in the individual rights the United States Constitution provides all citizens, and vigorously work to defend those rights from overreaching police and prosecutors. If you need legal representation, give our office a call and we can discuss your case.