Police in Washington can “stop and frisk” individuals they have specific reason to believe may be armed. But if that search goes beyond a “brief and nonintrusive” search, then it’s unconstitutional.
That was the finding of the Washington Supreme Court Thursday.
The case stems from an incident in Centralia in 2011. Tanner Zachary Roy Russell was stopped by an officer for riding his bike without a light at night. The officer searched Russell for a gun in part because of a law enforcement encounter the previous week where Russell had been armed. This time the search didn’t turn up a gun. But the officer did find a box in Russell’s pocket that contained a syringe with some meth in it.
In its unanimous ruling, the Washington Supreme Court ruled for both sides. It found the initial frisk was OK, but the subsequent search of the box violated Russell’s constitutional rights.
Russell’s attorney, Jodi Backlund, said this case creates a brighter line for police officers in these stop-and-frisk cases.
“In our opinion, of course, officers never had the ability to open containers where they did not suspect there was a weapon inside," she said. "However this case makes it crystal clear that there’s no argument that can justify that.”
The attorney for the state said this case is an important win for police officers too. That’s because the justices reaffirmed that officers can use prior knowledge about someone to justify frisking them for weapons.