Terry v. Ohio
392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed.2d 889 (1968)

  • A policeman noticed Terry and Chilton suspiciously loitering around a store window. He suspected that they were casing the store for a robbery. Eventually the two men were joined by Katz.
  • The policeman confronted Terry, Chilton and Katz. He asked their names, and then patted them down. Terry and Chilton turned out to be armed. They were arrested for carrying concealed firearms.
    • That’s called a stop and frisk search.
  • Terry made a motion to suppress the evidence of the search on the grounds that the warrantless search was a violation of his 4th Amendment right to privacy.
  • The Trial Court denied the motion. Terry pleaded guilty and then appealed.
    • Terry argued that even if he was acting suspiciously, there was no probable cause to make an arrest, and it is unreasonable to search someone without probable cause. In addition, just stopping Terry was a seizure of his person, and that’s also not allowed.
    • The State argued that the stop was only for a moment, and the search was minimally invasive, and therefore it didn’t require the same level of probable cause that an arrest and full search would require.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Terry appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the police may stop and frisk someone for weapons if they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has taken or is about to take place and the subject is armed and dangerous without violating the 4th Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.
    • The Court agreed that when the policeman took hold of Terry and patted him down, the detective seized Terry and subjected him to a search within the meaning of the 4th Amendment.
      • However, the Court did note that there is a distinction between a full search and a simple pat down for weapons. Also, there is a difference between an arrest and just making someone answer a few questions.
    • The Court noted that the 4th Amendment only prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court decided to apply an objective standard and ask the question, “would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or the search warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate?”
      • To determine reasonableness the Court suggested looking at:
        • The general interest in crime prevention,
        • The officer’s specific concern for his own safety,
        • The citizen’s interest in his own privacy and dignity,
        • The extent to which the particular search in question intruded upon those interests.
      • Basically, it’s a balancing test between the inconvenience of being stopped vs. the amount of suspicion. Since a stop and frisk is less invasive than a full arrest and search, the amount of suspicion required is lower.
    • In this case, the Court found that under the circumstances, it was reasonable to believe that Terry was armed. Therefore a pat down search was acceptable under the 4th Amendment.
      • The Court limited stop and frisk searches to situations in which there is a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous. You can only look for weapons, you can’t look for contraband.
        • “The sole justification of the search is the protection of the police officer and others nearby, and it must therefore be confined in scope to an intrusion reasonably designed to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer.”
      • Compare this to a search incident to lawful arrest (SILA), which also allows the policeman to search for potentially destroyable evidence.
  • In a dissent it was argued that if there was no probable cause then a magistrate could not have legally granted a warrant. Why would we allow the police to do something that a judge wouldn’t be able to authorize?
    • “We hold today that the police have greater authority to make a seizure and conduct a search than a judge has to authorize such action. We have said precisely the opposite over and over again.”
  • This type of search is now known as a Terry stop.