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Washington Supreme Court Says ‘Stop And Frisk’ Went Too Far

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, according to a finding by the Washington Supreme Court Thursday.

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 Russell had been armed during an encounter with law enforcement the week before.

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. The court found the initial frisk was OK, but the subsequent search of the box violated Russell’s constitutional rights.

Jodi Backlund, an attorney representing Russell, says 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. However, this case makes it crystal-clear that there’s no argument that can justify that,” Backlund said.

The attorney for the state says 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.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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