Sometimes, police officers stop people on the street to ask a few questions or to request identification. Even if that has never happened to you, chances are, you have been pulled over in your car by the police at some point. Lawyers and police officers refer to these encounters as Terry stops, after the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio. In that case, the Court held that the police can stop a citizen to search him for weapons when they reasonably believe the person is involved in criminal activity.
In order for a police officer to make a Terry stop, his suspicion about the person’s criminal activity must be based upon specific facts rather than the officer’s feelings, prejudices, or hunches. For instance, the officer could stop someone who closely matched a description of a burglar in the area half an hour after a burglary occurred, but could not detain a person who he thinks just looks like he is “up to no good” because of his race or clothing. The officer must have a real reason he could explain to a court why he thinks you might be involved in a crime that has been, will be, or is being committed. The standard for police to search you based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is less than the probable cause standard needed for the police to arrest you.
If the officer has reasonable suspicion, he is allowed to stop you and frisk you over your clothes. The frisk is only to make sure you are not armed, for the officer’s own safety and the safety of any bystanders. The purpose is to search you only for weapons. However, if the officer finds drugs or other illegal items on your person while frisking you, those discoveries may be used against you in court in some situations. If the officer could tell it was an illegal item from how it felt when he frisked you, the officer may remove the item and it could be used against you. The officer cannot look in tiny pockets where you could not fit a weapon. Likewise, in your car, he can only search the interior and not the glove compartment or the trunk. Remember, these rules only apply to Terry stops and not in other situations, like an arrest or a search based on probable cause, where the officer would need to have more reason to believe a crime was committed.
If a police officer stops you to ask questions, you can always ask the officer if you are free to leave and if he has reasonable suspicion to stop you. If the officer says that you are not free to go, you should contact a Florida criminal defense lawyer before answering his questions.