Police officers need to conduct searches to find evidence, but they also need to respect the civil rights of the individuals they investigate. The tension between those two obligations may lead to illegal conduct and violations of people’s civil rights. The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Both Maryland state and federal courts have repeatedly interpreted the Fourth Amendment in the context of modern policing practices.
If an officer encounters someone and suspects criminal activity, they may hope to perform a physical search of that person’s body. Searches that occur in a public location without a precipitating event can feel particularly invasive. So-called stop-and-frisk or Terry stop searches are subject to strict limitations in Maryland and elsewhere.
When can a police officer physically search someone’s body?
A decision by the Supreme Court limited stock-and-frisk searches, as any attempt by an officer to detain someone raises questions about their Fourth Amendment rights. The reason that people sometimes refer to stop-and-frisk encounters as a Terry stop is because of a criminal case that ended up appealed.
The case involved a pat-down that turned up a weapon, but the defense maintained that the search was illegal. The appeals eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. The ruling in that case established a key precedent that influences how law enforcement officers operate across the country.
The general rule about pat-downs, frisks or cursory bodily searches is that an officer can only search someone’s body when they have a reason to believe that the individual is in possession of a dangerous weapon. A suspicion that someone may have other illegal items or contraband on their person is not adequate justification for a pat-down.
Police officers who find something in someone’s pockets or on their person while conducting an illegal search may put the state at a disadvantage. Defense attorneys could challenge items found during illegal searches and prevent their inclusion during a criminal trial in some cases. People may also be able to assert their rights during an interaction with a police officer and stop them from conducting an inappropriate search.
Ultimately, knowing what rules limit police officer activity may benefit those who face law enforcement scrutiny in Maryland.