In theory, the Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures of your property. In practice, police officers constantly try to find ways around this federal rule. If you don’t know your rights during an interaction with the police, whether they stop you while you walk down the sidewalk or they pull you over in your vehicle, the officer you interact with could very easily violate your rights.
Trying to conduct searches without justification or warrants is a common means of police officers infringing on someone’s civil rights. The most invasive of these searches is the body search, pat-down or frisk, where a police officer will touch someone physically.
When is such a search legal?
When the officer suspects an illegal weapon
Officers May conduct a frisk or pat down search for their own safety, such as when they have probable cause to suspect that the other party may be in possession of a weapon. However, not every weapon justifies a frisk.
If a police officer encounters a hunter with appropriate licensing and a theoretically legal firearm openly displayed in the forest, that would not be a justification to conduct a bodily search. However, a gun-shaped protrusion in a pocket could be a reason to do a pat-down. Even if officers suspect that someone has another illegal item, like drugs, in their possession, such prohibited items are not a justification for a physical search.
When taking someone into state custody
Even when an officer does not have probable cause to think an individual has a weapon, they can still search that person’s body when transferring them into a state facility. Individuals could have weapons or drugs that could pose a safety hazard to other inmates on their person, so police officers will typically perform a thorough frisk and body search during the intake process at the local jail.
Officers should not conduct pat-down searches based on racial profiling or the neighborhood where they find someone. They should have a reason for conducting the search that they can readily articulate in court proceedings. If they do not, an attorney could challenge the search and any evidence it produced. Learning about the limitations on bodily searches could help you develop a defense strategy for your pending criminal charges.