Issues/Topics Covered in this Chapter

Legalizing Stop-and-Frisk in New York

  • Stop-and-Frisk in New York, 1961-1968
  • Challenging Terry “as practiced” in NYC
  • Floyd, et al. v City of New York

Stop-and-Frisk a historical context

Every day in New York City, and in cities around the country, police officers stop, question, and sometimes frisk people as part of their routine patrol duties. Police stops occur in a variety of places—on city sidewalks, outside apartment buildings, and in the subway. People are stopped on their way to work, coming home from school, on their lunch break; they may be alone or accompanied by family or friends. From the perspective of New York City police officials, these stops are essential to maintaining public safety.  From the perspective of many citizens who are stopped by officers, the encounters are intrusive and unwarranted.  The United States Supreme Court established a national legal basis for officers to stop, question, and frisk citizens in its 1968 decision in the case of Terry v. Ohio. In the Terry case, a veteran police officer observed three men engaging in conduct that he concluded might be indicative of “casing” a store for the purpose of committing a robbery. When he approached the men to ask them questions, the response from one of them was incoherent. Fearing that the men might be armed, the officer grabbed hold of one of them and “patted” him down. The pat-down revealed that the man was carrying a gun. The Terry decision permits police officers to stop and detain a person based on a “reasonable suspicion” that s/he might be about to commit a crime or is in the process of committing a crime. As such it represents a modification of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures originally granted to private individuals in the Bill of Rights. Prior to Terry, police officers were required to have a higher level of proof, “probable cause,” before interfering with the liberty of private persons. The broader discretion granted to police under Terry requires: 1) that the officer be able to articulate specific facts indicating a person’s possible involvement in a specific type of crime; 2) that in order to frisk the person, those specific facts must lend themselves to a reasonable belief that the suspect may be armed and dangerous; and 3) that the action of frisking be limited to a pat-down of the suspect’s outer clothing, for the purpose of discovering a weapon. While Terry-stops, as these encounters have come to be called, may be conducted based on far less evidence than that legally required to justify an arrest, the Terry decision makes clear that they may not be conducted based on groundless hunches about specific individuals being involved in crime. In New York City, Terry-stops are governed by Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) § 140.50 which became effective September 1, 1971.[1]

Many cases fleshed out Terry’s rules. These cases gradually required less and less evidence for a stop-and-frisk. A substantial body of law now allows police officers to stop an individual based on just two factors: presence in an area of high crime activity, and evasive behavior.i3 In other words, many courts now find that reasonable suspicion to stop exists when the person involved 1) is in a crime-prone location, and 2) moves away from the police.[2]

On November 9, 1989, while exiting an apartment building with a history of cocaine trafficking, Timothy Dickerson spotted police officers and turned to walk in the opposite direction. In response, the officers commanded Dickerson to stop and proceeded to frisk him. An officer discovered a lump in Dickerson’s jacket pocket, and, upon further tactile investigation, formed the belief that it was cocaine. The officer reached into Dickerson’s pocket and confirmed that the lump was in fact a small bag of cocaine. Consequently, Dickerson was charged with possession of a controlled substance. He requested that the cocaine be excluded from evidence, but the trial court denied his request and he was found guilty. Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed, and the State Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision.


When a police officer detects contraband through his or her sense of touch during a protective patdown search, does the Fourth Amendment permit its seizure and subsequent introduction into evidence? Was the police officer who frisked Dickerson adhering to the Fourth Amendment when he formed the belief, through his sense of touch, that the lump in Dickerson’s jacket pocket was cocaine?[3]

Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993) Held:

1. The police may seize nonthreatening contraband detected through the sense of touch during a protective patdown search of the sort permitted by Terry, so long as the search stays within the bounds marked by Terry. pp.372-377.

(a) Terry permits a brief stop of a person whose suspicious conduct leads an officer to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot, and a patdown search of the person for weapons when the officer is justified in believing that the person may be armed and presently dangerous. This protective search-permitted without a warrant and on the basis of reasonable suspicion less than probable cause-is not meant to discover evidence of crime, but must be strictly limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons which might be used to harm the officer or others. If the protective search goes beyond what is necessary to determine if the suspect is armed, it is no longer valid under Terry and its fruits will be suppressed Sibron v. New York, 392 U. S. 40.

This section is composed of text taken from and released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. No changes have been made to the text nor original material added.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment sits at the boundary between general individual freedoms and the rights of those suspected of crimes. We saw earlier that perhaps it reflects James Madison’s broader concern about establishing an expectation of privacy from government intrusion at home. Another way to think of the Fourth Amendment is that it protects us from overzealous efforts by law enforcement to root out crime by ensuring that police have good reason before they intrude on people’s lives with criminal investigations.

The text of the Fourth Amendment is as follows:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The amendment places limits on both searches and seizures: Searches are efforts to locate documents and contraband. Seizures are the taking of these items by the government for use as evidence in a criminal prosecution (or, in the case of a person, the detention or taking of the person into custody).

This section is composed of text taken from Chapter 4.2 of American Government 3e and is used under a CC BY license. No changes have been made to the text nor original material added.

Legalizing Stop-and-Frisk in New York

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Review Questions

  1. What were the key factors that led to the implementation of stop-and-frisk policies in New York City during the period of 1961-1968, and how did these policies intersect with issues of racial profiling and civil liberties?
  2. How did legal challenges, such as the case challenging Terry “as practiced” in NYC, address concerns about the constitutionality and discriminatory impact of stop-and-frisk tactics on communities of color?
  3. In Floyd, et al. v City of New York, what were the central arguments presented regarding the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk practices, and what were the implications of the court’s decision for police procedures and civil rights?
  4. How does the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution shape the legal framework surrounding stop-and-frisk policies, and what debates arise regarding the balance between law enforcement interests and individual rights under this constitutional provision?

  1. Jones-Brown, D. D. (2013). Stop, Question & Frisk Policing Practices In New York City: A Primer.
  2. Harris, D. A. (n.d.). Factors for Reasonable Suspicion: When Black and Poor Means Stopped and Frisked. Indiana Law Journal, 69, 31.
  3. Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993). (n.d.). Justia Law. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from


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