The mere fact that a person is present in a high-crime neighborhood is insufficient to justify a pat-down search of an individual, the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled.

Anthony Primous was a victim of “neighborhood profiling” in 2012, and the ACLU of Arizona, along with Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Arizona Supreme Court in the appeal of his case, State of Arizona v. Primous.

At the time of his arrest, Anthony Primous was sitting with a child in his lap, among a group of men outside an apartment complex in southeast Phoenix. When police officers arrived looking for someone with an outstanding felony warrant, Primous was seated, calm, and cooperative—although another man in his group ran as officers approached.

The officers frisked the remaining men and found a small amount of marijuana in Primous’ pocket, leading to his prosecution for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Primous was convicted and received one year of unsupervised probation but he challenged his conviction because, he argued, the marijuana was found during an unlawful search.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed, overturning Primous’ conviction. The police, the Arizona Supreme Court said, did not have individualized reasonable suspicion to search Primous:

The ultimate inquiry is whether police have reasonable suspicion that the person searched was either engaged in criminal activity or armed and dangerous. The surrounding circumstances here do not sufficiently suggest that Primous was engaged in crime or that he was armed and dangerous to justify a pat-down for weapons. … [H]ere the question is whether reasonable suspicion justified frisking Primous not because of anything he did or said but because someone else with whom he was conversing fled when police approached, while Primous remained seated and cooperative. The fact that the encounter occurred in a high-crime neighborhood was insufficient to justify the search of an individual who gave no indication that he was involved in a crime or posed an imminent threat to the officers. The Fourth Amendment shields such individuals from pat-downs regardless of their neighborhood. This rule amply protects law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods from being searched solely because of their surroundings.

Thanks to Primous’ persistent, five-year journey through the courts, all Arizonans—and all Arizona law enforcement officers—now are clearly on notice that the criminal history of a neighborhood alone is not sufficient reason for a person to be searched. There must also be something particular about the person to be searched, such as an “indication that he was involved in a crime or posed an imminent threat to the officers” for police to have individualized, reasonable suspicion to justify a search.

The Arizona Supreme Court’s full opinion is available here.

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