Terry v. Ohio

Terry v. Ohio

United States Supreme Court
392 U.S. 1 (1968)

ISSUE: Is it always unreasonable for a police officer to seize a person and subject him to a limited search for weapons unless there is PC for an arrest?
HOLDING: No, where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous, where in the course of investigating this behavior he identifies himself as a policeman and makes reasonable inquiries, and where nothing in the initial stages of the encounter serves to dispel his reasonable fear for his own or others' safety, he is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him.
FACTS:
  • Officer McFadden was patrolling in plain clothes when he observed Chilton and Terry standing on the street corner -- he could not say what drew his eye to them
  • He saw them walk one at a time past a store window, stop, look in, walk a little further, look in again, and then come back to the corner with the others -- about 12 trips
  • A third man then met them and briefly engaged in conversation
  • McFadden, suspecting that the men were casing the store, approached them, identified himself, and asked for their names -- they mumbled back
  • McFadden then spun Terry around, patted down the outside of his clothing, felt a gun, couldn't get it out, so he ordered them inside the store
  • Officer then felt the outside of the clothing of all three men and removed guns from Chilton and Terry
PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
  • Charged w/ carrying concealed weapons
  • Police: Govt. argues that the police should be able to stop and frisk someone upon suspicion and then arrest and search incident to arrest if PC is acquired
  • Terry: Ds argue that a variety of police action should not depend on the voluntary cooperation of the citizen when there's nothing enough for PC
RULES:
  • Seizure: When an officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen
  • Balancing approach: Police conduct under certain circumstances is not conducive to the warrant requirement because swift actions predicated upon on-the-spot observations are necessary
    • Need to balance the need to search/seize against the intrusion of the constitutionally protected interests of the private citizen
    • Objective standard: Would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the search/seizure warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate?
REASONING:
  • Search & seizure: An officer feeling the outside of one's clothing is "searching" within the meaning of the 4th Amdt., and temporarily detaining someone is a "seizure"
    • Much more than "petty indignity"
  • Legitimate interest not at issue: Police definitely have a legitimate interest in crime prevention and detection that justify them in approaching someone and making inquiries
    • McFadden here was obliged to investigate further as he did
  • Protect officer from weapons: There is a more immediate interest of the police officer in taking steps to assure himself that the person with whom he is dealing is not armed with a weapon that could harm him or others nearby
    • When an officer is justified in believing that the individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating is armed and presently dangerous, it is only reasonable that he be able to take the necessary measures to neutralize any threat
    • Police must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from them, reasonably warrant the intrusion
    • Standard: Whether a reasonably prudent man in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger
  • Reasonable fear of danger here: Reasonable man here would be warranted in believing that Terry was armed and presented a threat
    • No problem either with scope of search as it was limited to the outside of the clothing only until weapons were felt
CONCURRENCE - Harlan: Make it perfectly clear that the right to frisk in this case depends upon the reasonableness of a forcible stop to investigate a suspected crime
CONCURRENCE - White: Nothing in the Constitution prevents a police officer from asking someone on the street some questions
DISSENT - Douglas:
  • Decision gives police more power to search/seize than magistrates because magistrates need PC
  • Infringements on personal liberties is only justified by PC
COMMENTS:
  • Terry marks the foundation for the so-called "balancing approach" to the Fourth Amendment. The balancing approach evolved because there are certain contexts in which the rigid warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment does not, according to the Supreme Court, mesh well with real life (e.g., brief on-the-street encounters, schools, etc.).
  • The standard for a Terry stop is "reasonable suspicion," meaning that the officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts, which taken together with reasonable inferences drawn from them reasonably warrant the intrusion. Reasonable suspicion is an objective standard, so it is essentially immaterial what the individual officer thought (see Whren v. United States).
  • There are two "levels" of a Terry stop: the stop and then the frisk. If the officer does not have reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual is armed and presently dangerous, she may not frisk the individual just because she is performing a Terry stop.
  • A Terry stop, while indeed a Fourth Amendment "seizure," is not an "arrest." Further, an officer need not give Miranda warnings prior to any questioning done during the stop (see Berkemer v. McCarty).
  • I apologize that is brief is well, not brief. However, since Terry is so important in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, I wanted to get every ounce of the case that I could. The case itself is quite long, so therefore so is my "brief." The idea behind Terry (i.e., the "balancing approach") is quite simple however.

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