Terry v. Ohio: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

How the Fourth Amendment Relates to "Stop and Frisk"

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Terry v. Ohio (1968) asked the United States Supreme Court to determine the legality of stop-and-frisk, a police practice in which officers would stop passersby on the street and inspect them for illegal contraband. The Supreme Court found the practice was legal under the Fourth Amendment, if the officer could show he had a "reasonable suspicion" that the suspect was armed and dangerous.

Fast Facts: Terry v. Ohio

  • Case Argued: December 12, 1967
  • Decision Issued: June 10, 1968
  • Petitioner: John W. Terry
  • Respondent: State of Ohio
  • Key Questions: When police officers stopped Terry and frisked him, was it an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? 
  • Majority: Justices Warren, Black, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Fortas, Marshall 
  • Dissenting: Justice Douglas
  • Ruling: If an officer identifies himself to a suspect, asks questions, and believes the suspect is armed based on experience and knowledge, then the officer may conduct a brief investigatory search known as a stop-and-frisk.

Facts of the Case

On October 31, 1963 Cleveland Police Detective Martin McFadden was on a plain clothes patrol when he spotted Richard Chilton and John W. Terry. They were standing on a street corner. Officer McFadden had never seen them in the neighborhood before. Officer McFadden was a veteran detective with 35 years of experience. He paused, and found a spot to watch Terry and Chilton from about 300 feet away. Terry and Chilton walked back and farther, independently peering into a nearby storefront before reconvening. They each passed by the storefront five to six times, Officer McFadden testified. Suspicious of the activity, Officer McFadden followed Chilton and Terry as they left the street corner. A few blocks away he watched them meet up with a third man. Officer McFadden approached all three men and identified himself as a police officer. He asked them to give them his names but only received a mumbled response. According to Officer McFadden’s testimony, he then grabbed Terry, spun him around and patted him down. It was at this point that Officer McFadden felt a gun in Terry’s overcoat. He ordered all three of the men into a nearby store and frisked them. He found guns in Terry and Chilton’s overcoats. He asked the store clerk to call the police and arrested all three men. Only Chilton and Terry were charged with carrying concealed weapons.

At trial, the court denied a motion to suppress evidence uncovered during the stop and frisk. The trial court found that Officer McFadden’s experience as a detective gave him sufficient reason to pat down the men’s outer clothing for his own protection. Following the denial of a motion to suppress, Chilton and Terry waived a jury trial and were found guilty. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Judicial County affirmed the trial court’s judgement. The Supreme Court of Ohio dismissed request for an appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Constitutional Question

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court only asked, “whether it is always unreasonable for a policeman to seize a person and subject him to a limited search for weapons unless there is probable cause for his arrest."

Probable cause is a standard police officers must meet in order to obtain an arrest warrant. To show probable cause and receive a warrant, officers must be able to offer sufficient information or reasonable grounds that point to commission of a crime.

Arguments

Louis Stokes, arguing on behalf of Terry, told the Court that Officer McFadden had conducted an unlawful search when he spun Terry around and felt inside his coat pocket for a weapon. Officer McFadden did not have probable cause to search, Stokes argued, and acted on nothing more than a suspicion. Officer McFadden had no reason to fear for his safety because he had no way of knowing Terry and Chilton were carrying weapons until he conducted an unlawful search, Stokes argued.

Reuben M. Payne represented the state of Ohio and argued the case in favor of stop-and-frisk. A “stop” is different from an “arrest” and a “frisk” is different from a “search,” he argued. During a “stop” an officer detains someone briefly for questioning. If an officer suspects someone might be armed, the officer might “frisk” someone by patting down their exterior clothing layer. It is a “minor inconvenience and petty indignity,” Payne argued.

Majority Opinion

Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the 8-1 decision. The Court upheld Officer McFadden’s right to stop-and-frisk Terry on the basis that he had "reasonable suspicion" that Terry might have been “armed and presently dangerous.”

First, Chief Justice Warren dismissed the idea that stop-and-frisk could not be considered a “search and seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Officer McFadden “seized” Terry when he spun him around on the street and “searched” Terry when he patted him down. Chief Justice Warren wrote that it would be a “sheer torture of the English language” to suggest that Officer McFadden’s actions could not have been considered a search.

Despite ruling that stop-and-frisk counted as a "search and seizure," the Court distinguished it from most searches. Officer McFadden acted quickly while patrolling the streets. Practically, Chief Justice Warren wrote, it would not make sense for the Court to require that police officers show sufficient probable cause to obtain a warrant before checking a suspect for dangerous weapons.

Instead, officers need a “reasonable suspicion” to stop-and-frisk. This means “the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” They must also identify themselves as a police officer and attempt to resolve their suspicions by asking questions. Furthermore, a stop-and-frisk must be limited to the suspect’s outer clothing.

“Each case of this sort will, of course, have to be decided on its own facts,” Chief Justice Warren wrote, but in Officer McFadden’s case, he had “reasonable suspicion." Officer McFadden had decades of experience as a police officer and detective and could adequately describe his observations that led him to believe Terry and Chilton might be preparing to rob the store. Thus, his limited frisk could be considered reasonable in light of the circumstances.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Douglas dissented. He agreed with the Court that a stop-and-frisk is a form of search and seizure. Justice Douglas disagreed, however, with the Court's finding that police officers do not need probable cause and a warrant to frisk a suspect. Allowing officers to determine when it is appropriate to frisk a suspect grants them the same power as a judge, he argued.

Impact

Terry v. Ohio was a landmark case because the Supreme Court ruled that officers could conduct investigatory searches for weapons based on reasonable suspicions. Stop-and-frisk had always been a police practice, but validation from the Supreme Court meant that the practice became more widely accepted. In 2009, the Supreme Court cited Terry v. Ohio in a case that markedly expanded stop-and-frisk. In Arizona v. Johnson, the Court ruled that an officer could stop-and-frisk an individual in a vehicle, as long as the officer has a "reasonable suspicion" that the person in the vehicle might be armed.

Since Terry v. Ohio, stop-and-frisk has been the subject of debate and controversy.

In 2013, Shira Scheindlin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments due to racial profiling. Her judgment was not vacated on appeal and remains in effect.

Sources

  • Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
  • Shames, Michelle, and Simon McCormack. “Stop and Frisks Plummeted Under New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, but Racial Disparities Haven't Budged.” American Civil Liberties Union, 14 Mar. 2019, https://www.aclu.org/blog/criminal-law-reform/reforming-police-practices/stop-and-frisks-plummeted-under-new-york-mayor.
  • Mock, Brentin. “How Police Are Using Stop-and-Frisk Four Years After A Seminal Court Ruling.” CityLab, 31 Aug. 2017, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/08/stop-and-frisk-four-years-after-ruled-unconstitutional/537264/.