In State v. Russell, a unanimous Supreme Court found that police officers who stop and frisk people under the “Terry stop” principle can only look for weapons and not fish for evidence of other crimes. The Court also ruled that an individual does not give consent to a police search by “appear[ing] not to have a problem” with it – instead the officer must ensure the consent is voluntary and that the individual knows he or she can refuse to give consent.
Here, a cop stopped and frisked an individual, found a small box that could not contain a gun and opened it anyway. The cop found a syringe filled with methamphetamine. The Supreme Court held that the syringe could not be admitted into evidence against the defendant because a Terry stop only allows protective frisks for weapons and does not justify opening containers to see what is inside them. The Supreme Court also rejected the alternative argument that the defendant consented to the search by appearing not to have a problem with the frisk and observed that the State failed to establish that the officer gave Miranda warnings or otherwise advised him that he could refuse consent.
Police officers in Washington have been put on notice that they do not have a free hand in seeking evidence through stop and frisk tactics. They must limit themselves to performing a safety search for weapons unless they get either true consent for a more intrusive search or a warrant.
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