Terry stop

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A Terry stop in the United States allows the police to briefly detain a person based on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause which is needed for arrest. When police stop and search a pedestrian, this is commonly known as a stop and frisk. When police stop an automobile, this is known as a traffic stop. If the police stop a motor vehicle on minor infringements in order to investigate other suspected criminal activity, this is known as a pretextual stop. Additional rules apply to stops that occur on a bus.[1]

There is a difference between one police officer stopping one individual, which is a tactical definition, and systematic promotion of this tactic on either the departmental or municipal level, which can damage police–community trust and lead to charges of racial profiling.

Origins of Terry stop[edit]

Terry v. Ohio used only the "reasonableness clause" from the Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,... Reasonableness
...and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Warrant

The concept of a Terry stops originated in the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, in which a police officer detained three Cleveland men on a street corner and conducted a pat down search. During the pat down, the police officer discovered a revolver, and subsequently, two of the men were charged and convicted with illegal concealed weapons.[2] The men appealed their case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the revolver was found during an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. This brief detention and search were deemed admissible by the court, judging that the office had reasonable suspicion which could be articlulated (not just a hunch) that the person detained may be armed and dangerous. It is key to note that not just "mere" suspicion was used, but "reasonable" suspicion which could be articulated at a later date.[3]

This decision was made during a period of great social unrest in America in the 1960s, with rising crime, antiwar protests and race riots. It was thought that law enforcement needed to be provided with tools to deal with the unrest and new issues of urban crime. The decision itself was a narrow and cautious one which sought to balance the need for public safety and personal rights of privacy.[3]:93[4]

Reasonable suspicion[edit]

Types of Police-Civilian Encounters
Voluntary Contact Requires neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion
Investigative Detention (Terry stop) Requires reasonable suspicion
Arrest Requires probable cause

To have reasonable suspicion that would justify a stop, police must have "specific and articulable facts" that indicate the person to be stopped is or is about to be engaged in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion depends on the "totality of the circumstances."[5] Reasonable suspicion is a vague term and the Supreme Court concluded it should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Often it is built out of a combination of facts, each of which would, in itself, not be enough justification for the stop. For example four years after Terry, in Adams v. Williams (1972), it was decided that an known informant's tip, time of night (2:00 AM) and location in a high-crime neighborhood constituted reasonable suspicion.[3]:100


A frisk, also known as a patdown, of the surface of a suspect's garments is permitted during a Terry stop, but must be limited to what is necessary to discover weapons, and must be based on a reasonable suspicion the individual may be armed.[6] However, pursuant to the plain feel doctrine, police may seize contraband discovered in the course of a frisk, but only if the contraband's identity is immediately apparent.,[7][3]

Subsequent court cases have expanded the definition of what constitutes a frisk, and what is considered as admissible evidence. In Michigan v. Long, Terry stops were extended to searching the inside of a car passenger compartment if police have reasonable suspicion an occupant may have access to a weapon there. In Minnesota v. Dickerson, the court ruled that "immediately recognized" contraband discovered during a Terry stop is also a lawful seizure.[8]

Stop and identify[edit]

In states with stop and identify statutes, persons detained under the doctrine of Terry must identify themselves to police upon request so long as the stop was justified by reasonable articulable suspicion. In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, 542 U.S. 177 (2004), the Court held that a Nevada statute requiring such identification violated neither the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizure nor, in the circumstances of that case, the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination.[9]

Traffic stops[edit]

New Jersey State Police temporarily detain a driver during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

For practical purposes, a traffic stop is essentially the same as a Terry stop; for the duration of a stop, driver and passengers are "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that drivers and passengers may be ordered out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures. Drivers and passengers may be patted down for weapons upon reasonable suspicion they are armed and dangerous. If police reasonably suspect the driver or any of the occupants may be dangerous and that the vehicle may contain a weapon to which an occupant may gain access, police may perform a protective search of the passenger compartment. Otherwise, lacking a warrant or the driver's consent, police may not search the vehicle, but under the "plain view" doctrine may seize and use as evidence weapons or contraband that are visible from outside the vehicle.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Motions to Suppress in Removal Proceedings" (PDF). American Immigration Council. 1 August 2017. Retrieved 13 November 2018., page 8 (Bus and Train Sweeps)
  2. ^ "Terry v. Ohio". Oyez. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e Samaha, Joel (1 January 2011). Criminal Procedure (8 ed.). Cengage Learning. ISBN 1133171176. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  4. ^ Katz, Lewis R. (21 July 2005). "Terry v. Ohio at Thirty-Five: A Revisionist View" (PDF). Mississippi Law Journal. 74: 433-438. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  5. ^ Susskind, R.S. (1993). "Race, Reasonable Articulable Suspicion, and Seizure". American Criminal Law Review. 31: 327. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  6. ^ Argiriou, Steven. "Terry Frisk Update" (PDF). Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  7. ^ Larson, Aaron (2 February 2017). "What Are Your Fourth Amendment Rights". ExpertLaw. Retrieved 5 September 2017.
  8. ^ Gandy, Imani (7 October 2016). "Boom! Lawyered: Stop-and-Frisk Edition". Rewire.News. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  9. ^ "Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nev., Humboldt Cty., 542 US 177 (2004)". Google Scholar. Retrieved 13 November 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Katz, Lewis R. (2004). "Terry v. Ohio at Thirty-Five: A Revisionist View". Mississippi Law Journal. 74.
  • Meares, Tracey L. (2015). "Programming Errors: Understanding the Constitutionality of Stop-and-Frisk as a Program, Not an Incident". The University of Chicago Law Review. 82 (1).

External Links[edit]