The New York Criminal Law Blog

What Is New York's Stop-and-Frisk?

What is stop-and-frisk in New York? In the wake of the recent ruling in New York by a federal judge, stop-and-frisk has likely been on many New York residents' news feed radar.

Stop-and-frisk is a practice that police officers often employ wherein they stop a suspect and then pat or frisk them down for weapons and contraband. Earlier this month, a judge has ruled the state's practices unconstitutional.

What does this mean, exactly? Here's a general overview of New York's stop-and-frisk.

Stop-and-Frisk, In General

The stop-and-frisk, also known as the Terry stop or the Terry pat-down, is a practice derived from the case of Terry v. Ohio. It was then that the U.S. Supreme Court first recognized that there was a need for officers, despite not having probable cause, to still be able to pat down or frisk a suspect if the police officer at least had reasonable suspicion that they had any weapons on them.

Under the Fourth Amendment, citizens are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures absent a warrant issued with probable cause. So, in this case, is a stop-and-frisk still legal?

Because stop-and-frisks only require reasonable suspicion, and not probable cause, most stop-and-frisks may be legal. Probable cause is a much higher standard of suspicion that requires the police have an adequate reason, based on facts and circumstances, to arrest someone. Reasonable suspicion, on the other hand, only requires that police suspect, based on "articulable facts" that the suspect is armed and therefore may pose a risk to their safety.

Stop-and-frisks are, therefore, legal if they don't exceed the scope of a pat-down (the outer layer of one's clothing) and if they are based on reasonable suspicion.

What Was New York's Practice?

The most recent ruling in New York federal court determined the state's then-current practice of randomly stopping and patting down folks was unconstitutional because the police were often targeting minority communities, notably Hispanic and Black residents, and going beyond the scope of a Terry frisk.

A raced-based hunch not only does not quality as reasonable suspicion, but is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Furthermore, the police officers were not only patting down their suspects, but often searching inside a suspect's pockets or wallet, which exceeds the scope of a stop-and-frisk and constitutes an illegal search. That kind of search, under the Fourth Amendment, requires probable cause. A stop-and-frisk only allows for a pat-down or frisk of one's outer layer of clothing.

If you think you've been the victim of an unconstitutional stop-and-frisk, or are facing stop-and-frisk troubles with the law currently, a local, experienced attorney can help.

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