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Racial Profiling and Police Stops

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Police officers sometimes stop individuals who they feel look suspicious. Sometimes these individuals look suspicious because they’re dressed a certain way or drive a particular kind of car. Other times, they are stopped because of their race. Although clearly in violation of the law, racial profiling does occur, and there is a very fine line between reasonable suspicion and targeting someone because of his or her skin color.

Terry Stop

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, held that police officers may briefly detain someone if they have probable cause to suspect that person is involved in or planning criminal activity. This court ruling allows officers to perform a stop and frisk, which is a pat-down of a person’s outer clothing in order to determine if he or she is carrying a weapon. When determining whether or not reasonable suspicion is justified, courts look at the totality of the circumstances.

What this means is that in some cases, law enforcement agents could be justified for stopping individuals based upon their race. For example, if they have received reports of an Asian male suspect committing criminal activity in a certain area, it could be reasonable to detain someone because he fits that racial profile. If no such report has been made, it can be somewhat trickier to determine if a Terry stop was based on racial profiling. Some of the factors that could be used to gauge this include:

  • Where and where the person was stopped
  • The suspect’s alleged behavior
  • The existence (or lack thereof) of recent crimes in the area
  • The age of the accused (a juvenile who is out past curfew can automatically arouse suspicion regardless of race)

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

If it can be shown that a Terry stop took place as a result of racial profiling, the arrest could be declared invalid, or some of the evidence that was obtained during the stop could be eliminated from the trial. That’s because of a legal provision known as the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine, also known as the Derivative Evidence Doctrine. It states that if the source from which the evidence was obtained was tainted, any “fruit” that result from that source are also tainted. As a result, a defense attorney could request for certain evidence to be suppressed or file a motion to have charges dropped because racial profiling was used as justification for making a stop.

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