Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment governs the search and seizure of evidence in a criminal case. There are three important elements of this amendment that control the activities of law enforcement when it comes to searching for and collecting evidence. These critical elements have to do with

  • • When suspects and their property can be searched
  • • When a search warrant is needed
  • • How a search warrant is obtained

Stop and Frisk

A police officer can search a suspect if the officer has a search warrant or if the search is incident to a lawful arrest. But what if the officer wants to stop and frisk a suspect?

Although it has been common practice over the decades—virtually since police departments were established—for officers to stop and frisk suspicious people, it hasn’t always been exactly clear whether the police actually had the right to stop a suspicious individual and whether they could conduct a frisk looking for weapons or contraband. However, in the court case of Terry v. Ohio (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court defined this right and the parameters of what constitutes a stop and frisk.

The Terry v. Ohio case involved an officer who observed three men walking slowly back and forth in front of a store. The officer thought the men were acting in a suspicious manner, and he concluded they might be casing the store for a robbery. The officer confronted the three men and, after asking some questions, patted them down. In the process of patting them down, he discovered that two of the men were carrying revolvers. He arrested the men, and they were subsequently charged with carrying concealed weapons.

Later, in court, the men claimed that the officer did not have probable cause to search them. Therefore, they argued that the search was illegal and the guns should not be admitted into evidence. The case was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed the officer did not have probable cause, but the court made a distinction between a search without a warrant (which would require probable cause) and a stop and frisk. The court held that a frisk (or a pat-down of the outer clothing of an individual) is essential to the proper performance of a police officer’s investigative duties (Albanese, 2013).

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