Any evidence that a police officer finds which implies that someone broke the law might lead to that person’s arrest or criminal prosecution. Therefore, police officers have an incentive to search as many people as possible and maintain very high arrest and conviction rates.
Thankfully, numerous federal and state rules protect New Jersey residents against abuses of authority committed by law enforcement professionals. Police officers cannot search or detain people without meeting certain standards or getting permission first.
There are slightly different rules that apply to different types of searches. One of the most invasive searches a person may experience is a physical search of their person. When can a police officer bodily search or pat down an individual during an encounter in a public space?
Officers need a very specific reason to search a person
There have been numerous contested criminal cases relating to police officers searching people without justification in public spaces. The rules establishing when officers can search people reflect state and federal law, as well as key court precedent. So-called Terry stops or stop-and-frisk interactions are often a point of contention during criminal trials. For a police officer to justify their decision to search someone that is not under arrest, they typically need to have probable cause to suspect the presence of a weapon.
A person simply being present in a high-crime neighborhood or a police officer thinking that an individual may have prohibited items, like illegal drugs, on their person, is not a justification to search someone without their consent. If officers have probable cause sufficient to arrest someone, then at that point they may conduct a search before transferring them into state custody.
Improper searches can influence defense strategy
The best response to a pending criminal charge will be very different depending on the accusations levied against someone and the evidence that the state allegedly has. Raising questions about the legality of a search might prevent a prosecutor from using the evidence gathered during that search in someone’s trial.
Seeking legal guidance to discuss whether or not a search was legal can often be a good starting point for someone who needs to develop a criminal defense strategy in response to pending charges in New Jersey.