“Stop and frisk” has its limits

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The authority of police officers to “stop and frisk” alleged suspects was established by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago in a case called Terry v. Ohio. The Supreme Court placed significant limitations on the authority of the police to conduct warrantless searches of suspects, which the Courts are frequently called upon to review. One such case is a recent opinion authored by Senior Judge Charles Moylan, Jr. in a case called Brandon Ames v. State.

Ames was charged with drug offenses and challenged use of evidence seized from his pocket. At a hearing on his Motion to Suppress the evidence, the arresting officer testified that he got an anonymous call that a black male wearing gray sweatpants and a Chicago Bulls cap was standing outside a location with a gun in his waistband. The officer drove to the location and saw a man with that apparel, but saw no weapon. He testified that the man denied having anything on him that the officer should worry about, but he seemed nervous and kept touching his left pants pocket. The officer did a pat down of his pants and felt something soft and large in the pocket. When asked if there was anything in there that could harm the officer, the suspect said he had needles.
The officer testified to reaching into the pocket and pulling out a coin purse, which he then opened and found a white powdery substance and needles. The trial judge admitted that this was a very close case, but denied the Motion to Suppress predicting this may be a good issue for appeal. The jury convicted Ames of charges including possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia, and he appealed.
Judge Moylan wrote that the trial judge’s words were “ominously prophetic,” and the Court overturned the conviction. He noted that the Terry case requires a “reasonably articulable suspicion to make an investigatory stop.” Here, with only the anonymous call to go on and no police observations of a potential crime, the Court held the stop was not justified. Even if it were, the purpose of a “frisk” under Terry is to protect the safety of the police, and feeling a soft bulge in a pocket clearly did not establish a possible weapon, much less warranting opening the coin purse.
The strictures under Terry, the Judge said “just comes with the territory” which the police must operate under in performing a stop and frisk.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.


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