Stops, searches and the law
What you should know about your rights
You're driving down the highway when, all of a sudden, you see police lights in your mirror. As you pull over to the shoulder, do you consider what you will do if the officer asks for permission to search your car? Do you know what your rights are in that situation, or in other similar circumstances? Read the resources below to learn more.
The case law
Stop and Frisk
Terry v. Ohio (1968)
Issue: Should police be able to detain a person and subject him to a limited search for weapons without probable cause for arrest?
Decision: Police may conduct a limited search of a person for weapons that could endanger the officer or those nearby, even in the absence of probable cause for arrest and any weapons seized may be introduced in evidence.
Investigatory Stops and Detentions
Florida v. Bostick (1991)
Issue: In randomly checking bus passengers, one consented to a search of his luggage, where officers found cocaine. Did this encounter constitute an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment?
Decision: The defendant made the choice of riding the bus, and officers clearly informed him of his rights to refuse their search request. So it was not an unreasonable seizure.
Schneckloth v. Bustamonte (1973)
Issue: During the course of a consent search of a car that had been stopped by officers for traffic violations, evidence was discovered that was used to convict respondent of unlawfully possessing a check. Was consent to the search made with the understanding that it could freely be withheld?
Decision: Voluntariness is to be determined from the totality of the surrounding circumstances. While knowledge of a right to refuse consent is a factor to be taken into account, the State need not prove that the one giving permission to search knew that he had a right to withhold his consent.
Wren v. U.S. (1996)
Issue: Officers say driver of truck sat at a stop sign for an unusually long time, then turned suddenly without signaling and took off at an "unreasonable" speed. Officers stopped the vehicle for the purpose of traffic violations, but observed plastic bags of crack cocaine in the driver's hands. They arrested him, but he petitioned that the stop had not been justified by reasonable suspicion or probable cause, and that it was a "pretext" stop.
Decision: The temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.
Flights and stops
Illinois v. Wardlow (2000)
Issue: Does unprovoked flight in a high crime area justify a Terry-style stop by police?
Decision: The man's presence in heavy narcotics trafficking area and his unprovoked flight gave officers reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry-style stop. Both the context of location and behavior (flight) can be used as factors for reasonable suspicion. The intrusion involved in a Terry stop and frisk is minimal.