Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)

In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court addressed the role the Fourth Amendment plays in street contacts between police officers and civilians. A police officer observed Terry and two other men acting suspiciously in a commercial area of Cleveland. Although the officer admittedly witnessed no crime, he believed that the men were ‘‘casing’’ a location for a robbery. He detained the men and patted them down for weapons. After he felt a firearm through Terry’s clothing, the officer removed Terry’s jacket in order to recover the gun. The trial court found the officer’s conduct permissible despite the plain absence of probable cause, given that it involved a mere ‘‘frisk’’ rather than a full-blown search.

The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling, ultimately finding the police conduct reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Court first recognized that a ‘‘stop and frisk’’ scenario is indeed a ‘‘seizure’’ under the Fourth Amendment and soundly rejected the argument that such an encounter is only minimally intrusive. In an attempt to balance the government’s interest in crime detection and officer safety against individual privacy interests, the Court carved out a narrow exception to the probable cause requirement when a ‘‘stop and frisk’’ is involved.

In what has since been coined a ‘‘Terry stop,’’ the Court held that when an officer can point to ‘‘specific and articulable facts’’ that support a reasonable belief that the suspect is armed and dangerous and that ‘‘criminal activity may be afoot,’’ a brief detention and pat-down are permissible. The lynchpin of the Terry Court’s analysis is reasonableness, and the Court emphasized that the officer’s conduct must be justified at its inception and reasonable in its scope. As the lone dissenter, Justice Douglas criticized the majority’s ‘‘water[ing] down of constitutional guarantees’’ in relaxing the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of probable cause.

STEPHANIE ROBERTS HARTUNG

References and Further Reading

  • Schwartz, Adina, ‘‘Just Take Away Their Guns’’: The Hidden Racism of Terry v. Ohio, Fordham Urb. L. J. 23 (1996): 317.
  • Weaver, Russell L., Investigation and Discretion: The Terry Revolution at Forty (Almost), Penn. St. L. Rev. 109 (2005): 1205.
  • Williams, Gregory Howard, The Supreme Court and Broken Promises: The Gradual but Continual Erosion of Terry v. Ohio, How. L. J. 34 (1991): 567.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89 (1964)
  • Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1964)
  • Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961)
  • Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364 (1964)
  • Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914)

See also Arrest; Exclusionary Rule; Probable Cause; Search (General Definition), Seizures; Warrantless Search

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