What’s the Difference Between a Frisk and a Search?

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This is a common question and it goes along with another great question: “What’s the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause?” Let’s start with that question and then return to the first:


Reasonable suspicion: an objectively justifiable suspicion that is based on specific facts or circumstances and that justifies stopping and sometimes searching  a person thought to be involved in criminal activity at the time. A reasonable suspicion is more than a mere hunch.

Probable cause: a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime. To determine whether probable cause exists, you ask whether facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge are sufficient to warrant a prudent person to believe a suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.

. . .

Once reasonable suspicion and probable cause make sense, you’re ready to unwrap the difference between a pat down or “frisk” (also known as a Terry Stop) and a full search.

Frisk: When a police officer has a reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime, he may pat down your clothes to feel for weapons or drugs. If they find either, they may then use that evidence to form probable cause and arrest you. If they do not find weapons or drugs and you do not do anything else to give them probable cause, they must release you. The frisk came about from a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio.

Search: By contrast, a search is far from a mere pat down. When a police officer has probable cause that you committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime, they have the right to arrest you, detain you and search you. Anything that they find can be used against you as long as the probable cause was ultimately valid. Police are allowed to go to great lengths to search you, especially if they think you’re hiding drugs. There is a long line of cases saying cavity searches are A-OK.

If you have recently been arrested, your Constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure may have been violated. If you have questions about search and seizure law, contact Beahm Law at 415-493-8677 anytime.

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[...] the Fourth Amendment, the police can’t search you or seize your property without probable cause. Probable cause is commonly defined as a reasonable belief that a person has committed a [...]

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