Terry v. Ohio

392 U.S. 1 (1968)

Vote: 8-1

Opinion of the Court: Warren

Concurring Opinions: Black, Harlan, White

Dissenting Opinion: Douglas


Officer-Detective McFadden was on patrol when he observed suspicious activity. The officer had witnessed 2 men (Terry and Chilton) repeatedly walk by and stare into a store window, and then converse, 24 times. Officer-Detective McFadden became suspicious that the men were plotting a robbery. Upon observing the two men meet up with a third man, (Katz), on the street of the unusual activity, he approached the suspects. He identified himself to the men, (he was dressed in civilian attire). He solicited identification of the men and was met with an incoherent response by one member of the triad. Acting on reasonable suspicion of the men’s ill intents, he frisked them. This involved patting down the outer layer of the men’s clothing. The concealed weapons he found during the search gave him grounds for arrest. In Terry, the constitutionality of “stop and frisk” was subject to the Court’s scrutiny.

Legal Question: Does the “stop and frisk” procedure violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures?

 Opinion of the Court: Warren

The majority opinion reinforced the right of officers to “stop and frisk” individuals. Reasonable suspicion, coupled with the possibility an individual is dangerous, is adequate justification for a limited search for weapons.

The Court’s standing is justified by assertion that the “stop and frisk” is a serious procedure subject to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Accordingly, the acceptability of the “stop and frisk” is contingent on reasonableness. To determine whether a search/seizure is reasonable, the facts of the circumstance must be weighed against the nature of the intended intrusion. Reasonableness of a search/seizure can be established if the former justifies the ladder. An objective standard to determine reasonableness is whether a “man of reasonable caution” would think the intervention was acceptable. 

The Court debunks the notion that the “stop and frisk” is a “minor inconvenience and petty indignity.”  Although of a different magnitude than a search and seizure with probable cause, the “stop and frisk” is of great consequence to criminal justice. A “stop” is a variant of a seizure as it deprives an individual of their freedom; a “frisk” is a variant of a search as it has the potential to locate damning evidence. Additionally, circumstances unique to a stop and frisk contribute to the procedure’s seriousness. The public setting of the stop and frisk combined with the “helpless[ness]” of the individual is a grave matter.

In the interest of protecting themselves and society, a search and seizure that is performed without probable cause is acceptable. It is reasonable for an individual whose behavior raises suspicion that they are a danger to be subject to the “stop and frisk” in an attempt to procure a weapon from the suspect. The procedure permits a limited search of the suspect’s outer layer of clothing for a weapon. If a weapon is to be found, it is permissible to use it as evidence. 

Dissenting: Douglas

According to the dissenting opinion, a seizure’s acceptability is contingent on the establishment of probable cause. Warrantless searches and seizures pose to undermine individual sovereignty. Probable cause prevents the government from infringing on Fourth Amendment rights. Douglas goes so far as to suggest that the power the “stop and frisk” endows police with, rings of totalitarianism.


I find the ruling of the Court to be sound. Douglas’s contention that the “stop and frisk”  resembles a totalitarian regime disregards the truth that inadequate methods of social control could spiral in the direction of anarchy. Similar to totalitarianism, anarchism is incompatible with our founding principles. The “stop and frisk” grants police officers adequate means to keep society secure from  danger. The contention that probable cause should be a mandatory component of all searches and seizures is more idealistic than it is pragmatic. The responsibility and vulnerability inherent to the occupation makes it necessary for police officers to access efficient methods of combatting danger. This is further supported by the “man of reasonable caution” standard. It is reasonable for those whose mission it is to protect society to do so. 

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