Stop, Question and Frisk: What the Law Says About Your Rights

Ira Glasser

In New York City, there is increased media attention and public debate about both marijuana possession arrests and the New York City Police Department practice of "stop-and-frisk." As the number of stops and frisks have increased dramatically, so too have arrests for marijuana possession. Despite the fact that marijuana possession was decriminalized in New York in 1977, marijuana possession is now the number one arrest in New York City. More than 50,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010 alone, comprising one out of every seven arrests (15 percent).

Often missing from this debate is the Constitution – specifically the Fourth Amendment, and what the Supreme Court has said about how it applies to stops, frisks and searches.

This issue brief -- written by DPA President Ira Glasser -- describes the legal standards governing when police may stop, question, and frisk an individual on the street. This document provides:

  • Historical background of the Fourth Amendment
  • A thorough definition of "stop" and "frisk"
  • A summary of Supreme Court cases establishing and affirming the legal standards governing stop, question and frisks by the police
  • Critical questions about the legality of NYPD’s practice of stop-and-frisk

The legal standards described in this issue brief apply nationwide, regardless of what local city or state laws may say. However, this inquiry focuses on New York City due to the fact that over the last ten years, an astronomical number of New Yorkers have been stopped and frisked by the NYPD.

Drug Policy Alliance
Reforming Marijuana Laws
New York