When Can the Cops Stop and Search You on the Street? U.S. v. Richardson

In order for police to stop a person on the street and frisk or search the person, the law requires them to have “reasonable suspicion” that the person has engaged in criminal activity. As the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia recently explained, that suspicion can be – and often is – based on a variety of factors and behavior that may seem innocent when considered individually.

cuffsRichardson was arrested and charged with two federal crimes – being a drug user in possession of a firearm and ammunition and possession with intent to distribute cocaine – after an incident in an alley in downtown Wheeling. According to the Court, a police officer was patrolling the area at around 1 a.m. when he observed Richardson and a woman walk into the alley. The officer and a magistrate judge who later reviewed the case said this was a high crime area known for drugs and prostitution.

The officer circled around to the other side of the alley and began to approach when he saw the woman sitting on a set of steps next to Richardson, who had his back turned to the officer. Richardson said he was “taking a piss” when the officer asked him what he was doing, and placed his hands in his pockets when the officer approached. The officer then frisked Richardson, finding marijuana, heroin, crack cocaine, money, and ammunition. When police searched the alley, they also found a gun and a backpack containing more drugs and ammunition, as well as empty bags, syringes, and a silver spoon.

Prior to trial, Richardson sought to have the evidence thrown out as the fruits of an unlawful stop and frisk. Specifically, he argued that the cop didn’t have reasonable suspicion to stop and search Richardson but instead relied on a mere hunch that something illicit was going down.

The District Court disagreed. “A host of factors can contribute to a basis for reasonable suspicion, including the context of the stop, the crime rate in the area, and the nervous or evasive behavior of the suspect,” the Court explained. “Multiple factors may together create a reasonable suspicion even where each factor, taken alone, would be insufficient.”

In this case, the Court said the officer had reasonable suspicion based on the time of night, the high crime area in which the stop and search took place, and Richardson’s statement to the officer that he was urinating in public, a crime under state and local laws. It also noted that the officer said Richardson was repeatedly reaching into his pocket, a sign that he may have been reaching for a weapon or other contraband. “Reasonable suspicion need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct,” the Court said.

Search and seizure issues like this one often come up in criminal cases, particularly those involving alleged drug offenses. It’s important that a person facing criminal charges seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Warrant, Probable Cause Requirements in Police Home Searches – U.S. v. Hill

Are You Eligible for Bail? Pretrial Detention in West Virginia Criminal Cases – U.S. v. Lezine

Selling Marijuana Still a Felony in West Virginia – State v. Nutter