If a police officer arrests you, they can perform a full search of your pockets, personal items and car. But what if you are not under arrest? What if you are simply walking down the street or are stopped in a traffic stop? Can the police legally search you and seize what they find to use against you in court?
Stop and frisk
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution grants you protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by police. This means that the police cannot search people’s houses or persons without a valid search warrant. However, the Supreme Court has carved out a few important exceptions to this rule.
If a police officer has a reasonable suspicion that you might be carrying a weapon, they are allowed to pat you down quickly in a search for a firearm or other weapon. They can do this even if they don’t have a valid warrant.
This type of stop and frisk is also called a Terry Stop. Under this system, the police have to stop the frisk as soon as they are satisfied that you don’t have a weapon on you. In other words, if they feel something in your pocket, but they know that the object cannot be a firearm or knife, they cannot pull it out of your pocket and examine it.
The reasonableness requirement
The key element of this exception is the reasonableness requirement. In other words, in order for the police’s frisk to be legal, their belief that you might have a weapon must be objectively reasonable, not simply based on a hunch.
If a police officer searches you without a warrant and without a sufficiently justifiable reason, and they find evidence that they later try to use against you in court – or if they improperly examine something in your pocket that’s obviously not a weapon – then your attorney can argue that the police seized the evidence improperly in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. This means the court could hold that the police cannot present this evidence as part of their case against you.
The Constitution serves an essential role in protecting us from police overreach. Knowing when the police seized evidence against you improperly and in violation of your rights can mean the difference between victory and defeat in a criminal trial.