We’ve discussed myths about Miranda Warnings in the past here on this blog. Many people are familiar with the famed phrase and warnings, issued by the police after they have arrested a suspect, and what it entails. Fewer people however are as familiar with their rights before an arrest takes place. One of the most important yet misunderstood areas occurs when a police officer stops to question you and wishes to give you a pat down. Many people’s first instincts would be to deny the officer and run but is that legal? Do you have to comply with a police officer’s order to stop and be frisked? Here is what you need to know.
A Brief Detention, a “Terry Stop”
First off, yes, police officers can stop you in the street and search you. This is a legal stop or seizure. It is most commonly known as a “Terry stop,” named after the seminal United States Supreme Court case. Under the standards set out under this Supreme Court case, police officers may legally briefly detain a person who they reasonably suspect is involved in criminal activity. The operative word in the holding of the case is reasonable. Police must have reasonable suspicion that a suspect is involved in criminal activity before detaining them. It should also be noted that while not originally addressed in the first Supreme Court case on the subject, this same principle has subsequently been applied to all traffic stops.
During a Terry Stop, police officers may also do a limited search of the detained individual’s outer garments if the police officers have a reasonable suspicion that the person detained may be armed and dangerous, such as if they have a gun or knife on their person. This is not a free pass to police officers to completely strip a detained individual or completely search them. The pat down must be limited to what is necessary to discover weapons. However, as in all police searches, if there is a contraband item such as an illegal narcotic or drug paraphernalia in plain view of what the police officer can see, then the police officer now has probable cause to seize the contraband item, arrest the detained individual and further search them incident to arrest.
Terry Stops Require Specific and Articulable Facts
Under the standards set out in Supreme Court cases, police officers cannot stop people for absolutely no reason at all. They must be able to point to specific and articulable facts that would indicate to a reasonable police officer that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed. For example, if a police officer witnesses multiple individuals exchanging cash for brown paper bags while each person nervously looks around, the police officer can point to specific articulable facts that a drug deal has just occurred. The suspicious behavior of the individuals rises above the level of a mere hunch and is therefore a constitutional stop.
The above example is just one of many possible situations where a police officer may have reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk an individual. There is no exhaustive list of what constitutes a reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion depends on the totality of the circumstances and is entirely dependent on the situation. Consider some of common factors that police officers point to when articulating specific facts that underlie their reasonable suspicion:
- The officer’s personal observations of the detained individual;
- Information the police officer receives from others regarding the situation;
- The time of day or night that the detained individual is observed;
- The suspect’s proximity to where a crime was recently committed;
- The suspect’s reaction to the police officer’s presence, such as fleeing or attempting to hide;
- The prior level of criminal activity in the area the suspect is located; and
- The officer’s knowledge of the suspect’s prior criminal record
Do Not Fight a Terry Stop on the Street: What to Do During a Terry Stop
If you ever find yourself involved in a Terry Stop, it is important that you be mindful of the circumstances that you find yourself in. If an officer is stopping you to perform a stop and frisk, it means that the police officer believes that you may have been involved in a crime. More importantly, the police officer believes that you may be armed and dangerous. The police officer will treat the situation very seriously and so should you. Pat downs of your person are performed for the police officer’s safety.
When you are stopped by a police officer, remember these tips to ensure that it goes smoothly, does not last longer than it needs to and does not have any negative consequences:
- Do not ignore an officer’s request to stop. Running from a police officer is generally viewed as suspicious behavior;
- While you have a Fifth Amendment Right to refrain from self-incrimination, if you choose to talk to law enforcement, then only answer those questions asked of you and do not offer unsolicited information;
- Comply with a pat down request;
- Be polite and courteous. Terry Stops are meant to be brief detentions and should be no longer than a couple of minutes.
It cannot be stressed enough that Terry Stops should be treated very seriously. For a police officer, every encounter with an individual has the chance to go wrong very quickly and can result in severe bodily injury to not just the police officer and suspect but everyone around. Being uncooperative and combative during a Terry Stop is an easy way to find yourself in criminal trouble, even if you have done nothing wrong.
Consult with a South Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney to determine if Your Rights have been Violated
None of the advice given here suggests that you should just give up and accept it if you have been targeted by a police officer unfairly or unjustly. Police officers have a duty to protect and uphold the law in their policing and that includes respecting your Constitutional rights. Terry Stops are often the precursor to an arrest and if your rights have been violated during the Terry Stop, your skilled criminal defense attorney in Greenville can advise you on what the next steps to take are. Contact David R. Price, Jr. P.A. as soon as possible if you have been charged with a crime or believe that you are the subject of a criminal investigation. It is never too early to protect yourself from criminal accusations or to ensure that your rights are asserted at every step.
David Price is a Personal Injury, Civil Litigation, Collections, and Criminal Defense Attorney who practices in Greenville, SC. He graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law, and has been practicing law for 12 years. David Price believes in helping those who have been injured. Learn more about his experience by clicking here.