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Stop and Frisk in PA: An Overview

Town Law Publishing Jan. 13, 2023

Stop and frisk is a controversial practice in which a police officer stops and searches a person for weapons or other contraband without necessarily having probable cause to arrest them. In Pennsylvania, the law regarding stop and frisk is governed by the state constitution and case law interpreting it.The Pennsylvania Constitution provides that "the people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures." This means that, in order for a stop and frisk to be lawful in Pennsylvania, it must be reasonable under the circumstances. In determining whether a stop and frisk is reasonable, courts in Pennsylvania have looked to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Terry v. Ohio, which established the legal standard for stop and frisk. In Terry, the Supreme Court held that a stop and frisk is reasonable if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity and the officer's actions are limited in scope and duration to the extent necessary to protect the officer's safety or to investigate the suspected criminal activity.

However, courts in Pennsylvania have also held that an officer's subjective belief that a person is involved in criminal activity is not enough to justify a stop and frisk. Instead, the court must determine whether the officer's belief was reasonable, based on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. In addition, courts in Pennsylvania have held that an officer's use of force during a stop and frisk must be reasonable under the circumstances. If an officer uses excessive force during a stop and frisk, it can be found to be an unlawful search or seizure. In an example of an unlawful stop and frisk in Pennsylvania, the case of Commonwealth v. Brown, a Pennsylvania Superior Court found that the officer's stop and frisk of the defendant was not based on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. In that case, the officer had been dispatched to the area after receiving a report of a suspicious person, but the officer did not have any specific information about the defendant. The officer stopped the defendant and conducted a pat-down search, during which he found a handgun. The court found that the officer's stop and frisk was not based on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and thus was an unlawful search.

Another example is the case Commonwealth v. Bond, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania held that the officer's use of force during a stop and frisk was excessive and thus an unlawful search. In that case, the officer had stopped the defendant and conducted a pat-down search, during which he used a significant amount of force, including striking the defendant and twisting his arm. The court found that the officer's use of force was not necessary to protect the officer's safety or to investigate the suspected criminal activity and thus was excessive.

stop and frisk

Overall Stop and Frisk in Pennsylvania is governed by state's constitution, and it must be reasonable under the circumstances with a suspicion based on specific facts and limited in scope and duration and use of force should also be reasonable. Unlawful stop and frisks happen when officer's actions are not based on reasonable suspicion or if the use of force is excessive.

It's important for individuals to understand their rights when it comes to stop and frisk and what constitutes as an unlawful search or seizure. If you believe that you have been the victim of an unlawful stop and frisk in Pennsylvania, contact The Town Law today for a free consultation.