Go to navigation Go to content
Toll-Free: 888-230-1841
Phone: 864-582-0416
Holland & Usry, P.A.

The Legal Basis for Warrantless Police Stops and Searches

You’re minding your own business walking down the street when officers show up from nowhere, peppering you with questions, then shove you around, digging in your pockets.

You feel violated, even if you got busted for drugs or a gun as a result. But did it violate your rights? The short answer is that it’s really hard to tell, because the law is so vague and every case depends on specific facts.

Let’s turn our spyglass on the choppy legal waters you’re navigating.

“Reasonable Suspicion”: A Confusing Legal Basis to Stop and Search

The United States Constitution requires police to have a justifiable reason for stopping and searching you. It’s called “reasonable suspicion.” Legally, those two little words are a moving target. Here’s how it’s defined and applied.

  • Defined. Reasonable suspicion requires officers to point out specific, unbiased facts and conclusions drawn from the facts that give them a legitimate reason to suspect you’re involved in crime or have a weapon on you. They don’t have to be certain. The level of evidence is extremely low—way less than beyond a reasonable doubt as required for a conviction, and even less than probable cause to arrest you. At the same time, it has to be more than just a lucky guess.
  • Court determinations. When judges evaluate whether officers had reasonable suspicion, they look at the whole picture. There’s absolutely no clear definition of reasonable suspicion. The United States Supreme Court describes the term as “abstract,” with no set rules defining it. Sometimes the same facts in a different case can create a different outcome!

The idea of reasonable suspicion may become important to your case in two separate ways:

  • Reasonable suspicion to stop you. Police must have reasonable suspicion you’re involved in criminal activity.
  • Reasonable suspicion to search. To give you a pat down for weapons, officers must have reason to believe you are armed and dangerous.

What To Do About It

If you got charged with a crime after being stopped and searched, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney who’s sharp at legal research to develop convincing, highly technical defenses that officers violated your constitutional rights. If you convince a judge of that, all evidence from the search can be thrown out—which could mean a dismissal of your charges.

Here's a real life example how a skilled criminal defense attorney pointed out the fine details and complex law of this defense to save his client from a crack cocaine distribution conviction.

For you, the stakes are high. You may have no other defense. And the police won’t quit. Convincing a prosecutor or judge the search was invalid may be the difference between prison and dismissal, or a charge reduction you can live with.

If you’ve got questions whether a police search that led to a bust was legal, don’t ever assume they are right and will win in the end. The law’s really complicated, and it might just help you. What you should do is sit down with a skilled criminal defense lawyer to strategize a defense to beat or reduce the charge. If you have any questions about a police search or anything else related to your case, contact us by email or live chat to get the ball rolling.

 

Rob Usry
Connect with me
Rob is a South Carolina personal injury and criminal defense lawyer.