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802 Coleman Blvd., Suite 200, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina 29464

Stop and frisk, what you should know

By Brooks Davis

The recent death of Denzel Curnell, a local man who died as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot, has raised many issues for local law enforcement, chief among them are the legality of a “stop and frisk” and racial profiling.

In this particular incident, a young African-American man was stopped by a Charleston Police Department officer outside the Bridgeview Village apartments, a notoriously high-crime area. Curnell was wearing a “hoodie” at the time of the stop. Of course the image of a young African-American male in a hoodie evokes thoughts of the controversial and highly publicized Zimmerman trial regarding the shooting death of Treyvon Martin. The fact that Curnell was wearing a hoodie in 100 degree heat in a high-crime area and refused to take his hand out of his pocket upon the officer’s command immediately creates reasonable suspicion and provides the officer discretion to protect his own safety in reasonably justifiable manner equivalent to that of the perceived threat. 

The policy of “stop-and frisk” is not something new that was created by Charleston Police Department. This policy was first addressed in a landmark Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). In Terry, a Cleveland detective was patrolling an area of the city that he had been patrolling for many years and knew well. The detective observed two men walking back and forth repeatedly along the same path stopping to peer into a store window. They did this approximately twenty-four times and conferenced each other after every pass. This activity rose to the level of reasonable suspicion in that the detective believed the men were going to rob the store they were casing. At this point the detective approached the men, identified himself as a police officer, asked the men for their names and performed a pat-down of their outer clothing. In other words, a “stop-and-frisk”. During this time, the detective found a concealed weapon on one of the men. The defense moved to suppress the weapon as the product on an unlawful search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, the Supreme Court denied the motion to suppress and held “Where a reasonably prudent officer is warranted in the circumstances of a given case in believing that his safety or that of others is endangered, he may make a reasonable search for weapons of the person believed by him to be armed and dangerous regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest that individual for crime or the absolute certainty that the individual is armed . . . an officer justified in believing that an individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating at close range is armed may, to neutralize the threat of physical harm, take necessary measures to determine whether that person is carrying a weapon.” Id. at 20. In a recent opinion by the Supreme Court, it was held that “The Fourth Amendment permits brief investigative stops when an officer has ‘a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of . . . criminal activity.’ United States v. Cortez, 499 U.S. 411–418. Reasonable suspicion takes into account ‘the totality of the circumstances,’ id. at 417, and depends ‘upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability,’ Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325.” See Supreme Court of the United States, No. 12-9490 (2014). In other words, reasonable suspicion is left entirely in the purview of the officer based on his or her training and experience, an the totality of the circumstances. If you are stopped and frisked by a law enforcement officer it is usually best to cooperate as law enforcement does have that right.

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