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The fourth amendment covers a number of topics. One such subject is the stop and frisk law, otherwise known as the Terry Stop. While many may get this confused with a full police search, you should be careful to ensure that you don’t confuse the two.

A terry stop is handled under criminal law; it states that a person can be detained for a search if there is reasonable doubt that the individual is dangerous. A stop and frisk is the ability that police officers have that allow them to hold someone temporarily and pat down their outer layer. Now that we understand the general concept let’s start by defining what “frisk” means.


A “frisk” can only be done if there was a lawfully executed stop. In practice, someone who does not cooperate with officers may be subject to a frisk. The search is used to look for contrabands and weapons. As stated before, the officer will pat down the outer layer of clothing. If an officer comes across other evidence, those items can be confiscated. The “plain feel” doctrine would cover the seizure of the items. The doctrine states that the evidence’s nature must be “immediately apparent” to the officer for it to be taken.

When can it be done?

Officers are not required to state to the individual what crime they believe is occuring. To complete a lawful stop, they must have factual evidence that unlawful behavior is being committed. The officers must be under the impression that the person they are searching is armed and a danger to the community.

Reasonable Expectations

A stop cannot exceed reasonable time expectations. It must be completed within a moderate amount of time. If the search goes over, any evidence that is found after the fact would be unusable in court. For example, if someone was being searched during a routine traffic stop, an officer wouldn’t be able to hold to an individual longer than it would generally take to complete a traffic violation stop ticket. If an officer were to utilize a police dog to search the vehicle after they already did any evidence collected would be thrown out because they held onto the person for longer than it would take to issue a ticket.

Now, if there was already an existing valid arrest warrant issued for the person, any evidence that is found on the search would be usable in court even if the search would otherwise go against the amendment. Finally, the search must be within the law and without evidence that it was part of police misbehavior.

The biggest takeaways to remember is that, compared to a police search, during a stop and frisk an officer will be confined to the outer layer and be looking only for weapons. A police search will have more in-depth searching, and they are not just restricted to firearms.