In the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, the court ruled that stop and frisk laws were constitutional on the grounds that an officer “is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area” to search individuals for dangerous weapons that could be used against the officer. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes how this ruling came to be, and what it has meant for our nation and particularly black citizens in the United States. The court ruled that stop and frisk laws do not violate the fourth amendment which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. While not intended to have racially disparate outcomes, historically stop and frisk laws have targeted minority populations.
In 1968 Justice Douglas provided the dissenting opinion in Terry v. Ohio. He argued that the ruling lead the nation down a totalitarian path by granting unreasonable power to the police. Alexander writes that, “He objected to the notion that police should be free to conduct warrantless searches whenever they suspected someone is a criminal, believing that dispensing with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement risked opening the door to the same abuses that gave rise to the American Revolution.” She continues to describe the ways in which stop and frisk rules have been used to search black and latino individuals for drugs and weapons even when those individuals showed no sign of criminal or threatening behavior.
Our nation today is struggling to understand just how much power the police should have, and just how much protection citizens should have from the police. A big challenge in the debate, which prevents people from reaching a shared conclusion, has to do with how and where our police are active. Many white people do not experience the same searches that black and latino people experience, so an increase in police power is not a threat to them, but rather a reassurance. Black and latino people, who are more likely to live in concentrated poverty and less likely to own a car, are more vulnerable to searchers from the police, and feel more threatened by increases in police power. Data suggest that white people, black people, and latino people commit crimes at about the same rates, but historical factors shaping housing policy and wealth accumulation have impacted where those crimes take place. Alexander explains that part of the reason stop and frisk rules have been so disparate in their impact on black people is because black people are more likely to commit crimes in public places compared to white people who may be committing the same crimes but from the safety of their homes or gated communities. It is important to note that the types of crimes that we are talking about being committed are low level drug offenses, such as possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance. The data indicates that our patterns of arrests and policing are shaped by more than a response to crime. Also, where, when, and how crime is committed is influenced by many factors, such as current economic and social conditions. Our past and our decisions have shaped who is stopped, who is searched, and who is protected or disadvantaged by increases in police power. Stop and frisk may have been introduced to help protect officers and individuals from dangerous criminals, but it has instead become a tool to identify and arrest minority drug users who are not able to carry drugs in personal vehicles or use and distribute drugs from the comfort of nice homes or gated communities.