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Stop-and-Frisk Law in California

Sometimes, a criminal defense attorney can prevent the district attorney from presenting specific evidence during a trial. The exclusion of some evidence might make a significant difference in a defendant's case and might even lead to the dismissal of their criminal charges.

Illegal searches are one of the main reasons lawyers successfully prevent prosecutors from using certain evidence. A physical search of someone's body could produce the state with compelling evidence.

Stop-and-Frisk Law in California
The stop-and-frisk law allows police to temporarily detain and search you without a warrant.

Yet, if a search is conducted unlawfully, any evidence collected due to these efforts could be withheld from trial. So, when can police officers legally search somebody?

The common practice of stopping and frisking people (Terry stop) might place an unfair burden on some people who live in certain neighborhoods or belong to certain racial groups.

Police often target people in low-income or high-crime areas. They might also profile people based solely on their appearance and target them for a pat-down. If this occurs, it could be considered a violation of someone's rights.

Under some crucial court rulings, police must have a reason to stop and question someone and have reasonable suspicion of a dangerous weapon on someone's person to frisk them.

Depending on the circumstances that led to the encounter and the police officer's justification for frisking or physically searching someone, what they find during that search may not be used as evidence during a criminal trial.

Simply put, law enforcement officers cannot physically search someone merely because they suspect the presence of contraband or believe that the person may have committed a crime.

They can stop someone and ask someone to identify themselves when they believe criminal activity might have been committed. However, physically searching someone is usually only a legal option when they give permission, the police officer suspects a weapon, or there is probable cause to arrest them for criminal activity.

Thus, raising questions about the legality of a search can play a major role in someone's defense against criminal charges.

What is a "Terry Stop?"

A stop-and-frisk, called a "Terry stop," is the controversial practice allowing police to temporarily detain and search you in a public place without a warrant. In California, law enforcement can only conduct stop-and-frisks if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The stop-and-frisk law has some primary rules that police must follow based on the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says you have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Consider the following quick facts:

  • Police are legally allowed to temporarily detain you in a public place without a warrant if they reasonably suspect you're involved in illegal behavior.
  • A "temporary detention" by law enforcement is only based on reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.
  • During a Terry stop, police can conduct a pat-down search (frisk) to search for weapons only if they have a justifiable belief that you are armed and dangerous.
  • During frisks, police can only pat down your outer clothing.
  • They cannot reach under your clothing or in your pockets unless they plainly feel contraband.
  • The police officer does not need an arrest or search warrant.
  • If a police officer gets incriminating statements from a suspect, they must be able to testify about their suspicious activity.
  • If police officers unlawfully force interaction in a Terry stop, any discovered evidence of a crime could be excluded.
  • Racial profiling concerns have led some California cities to ban or restrict the stop-and-frisk practice.
  • Stop-and-frisk often raises issues over racial profiling by police, or they treat the suspect differently due to bias.
  • Police officers typically target minorities like African Americans and Hispanics for these searches much more frequently than other groups.

Suppose police are cruising around a known high-drug-activity area and observe someone on a street corner exchanging something quickly with another person.

The suspect was wearing baggy clothes that might conceal a weapon. Based on this reasonable suspicion, they can conduct a stop-and-frisk search of the suspect.

What is a "Reasonable Suspicion?"

Reasonable suspicion means enough information to justify stopping someone temporarily but can't be based on a "gut feeling."

The constitutional law established under the Terry standard says that law enforcement must be able to articulate factual observations justifying their stop, such as the following examples:

  • Witness descriptions that match a suspect.
  • Exchange of money in solicitation to prostitution areas.
  • You are in the immediate area where police know a crime occurred.
  • You try to run when you spot police officers nearby.
  • Actions that show you are concealing a weapon or contraband.
  • A posted "lookout" for police officers to alert co-conspirators.
  • Someone "casing" a business for a robbery or burglary.
  • Erratic suspect behavior or possibly under the influence.

What is the "Plain-Feel" Doctrine?

The abovementioned laws also limit how much an officer making a stop may frisk the suspect. In other words, just because a police officer can justify detaining someone does not mean they can automatically search them. Simply put, the same laws limit frisk situations. Police must have a reason to believe the suspect might have a weapon or contraband.

This means not every Terry stop justifies a frisk. The same laws say a police officer can perform a general frisk of someone's body, such as the following:

  • Police can only pat down your outer clothing.
  • Police can't reach or grope under your clothing or into pockets.
  • Police cannot seize and search your cell phone.

Notably, however, if police feel something they know is likely contraband, such as a weapon, they can remove it and use it as evidence against you. The police can legally frisk you only if they believe you are armed and presently dangerous.

The plain-feel doctrine requires law enforcement officers to readily identify an object as a potential weapon or contraband from the plain feel of the pat-down before they can move, manipulate, or remove the felt object for further identification.

Sometimes, there are situations where police officers overstep their legal bounds, looking for evidence of drug crimes, theft crimes, or illegal weapons.

Most people know that police officers must have probable cause before arresting someone for an alleged crime. Still, many people don't know that state and federal laws prohibit law enforcement officers from detaining someone without "reasonable suspicion" and not for an unwarranted stop and frisk.

What If You're the Victim of an Unlawful Stop and Frisk?

Suppose law enforcement obtains incriminating evidence during a stop-and-frisk that does not meet constitutional standards. In that case, a California criminal defense lawyer can file certain legal motions, such as the following:

  • A motion to suppress evidence is defined under California Penal Code 1538.5 PC. It asks the court to disregard any incriminating evidence the police found during the illegal stop. These are related to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and has an exclusionary rule banning the use of evidence gained unlawfully.
  • A motion to dismiss charges is defined under Penal Code 995 PC. If the court grants a motion to suppress that ban, unlawfully gained evidence, a motion to dismiss the criminal charges could be filed when the remaining evidence does not support the probable cause.

If you believe the police conducted an illegal stop and frisk, contact us to review the details and legal options.

Early intervention, in your case, can increase the chances of a favorable outcome. Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor for reduced charges, case dismissal, or persuade them not to file formal criminal charges (DA reject). Cron, Israels & Stark is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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