Review Of The Terry Vs. Ohio Case

A look into the case of Terry vs Ohio and how it created the stop and frisk rule for searches and seizures.

The case of Terry v Ohio was brought to the Supreme Court of the United States to look into the issue of police officers invading the personal space of citizens, while not having probable cause. It had been (and still) quite common for police officers to stop suspicious people on the street based on hunches. Police feel that random interrogations can deter street crime. More commonly known as the "stop and frisk", this procedure was formally created in the following case.

In October of 1963, a police officer observed two suspicious men, one of them Terry, standing on a street corner. He had never seen the men in the area before, and his police instincts drew them to his eye. In his opinion, they were not in the right place at the right time. Due to this suspicion, the officer took up surveillance from approximately 400 feet away. He observed one of the men leave the corner, and walk past several stores. The man looked into the store windows, and continued walking. After a minute, he turned back around, and looked in the same windows again as he went back to the corner where his friend was waiting. The two then spoke for a brief period of time. Then, the man who had previously stayed on the corner then proceeded to perform the same steps as his friend had done previously. After looking into the same stores and coming back, the first man performed the same act again. The two men switched back and forth six times, always looking into the same stores. While the two men were conferring after their trips, a third man approached the first two, and engaged them in conversation. The third man then walked away, allowing the first two to continue their pacing past the stores. After another 10 minutes of this, the first two men left the corner together; following the direction the third man took when he left.

By now, the police officer was extremely suspicious. From his 35 years of experience, he believed that the men were "casing a job", or evaluating targets to be robbed. He considered it his duty to investigate further. He also feared that the men may have been armed, as in his opinion they were about to commit robbery. The officer then followed the two until they met back up with the third man in front of one particular store. The officer took this opportunity to approach all three men, and identify himself as a police officer. He asked the three men their names, they mumbled incoherently. The officer then grabbed the man in the middle, whom happened to be Terry, and patted down the outside of his clothing. In the left breast pocket, he felt a hand gun, but was unable to remove it. The officer then ordered the three men into the store, where he then removed Terry's jacket, and retrieved a .38-caliber pistol. At that point, the officer then patted down the third man, and he found another pistol. No weapons were found on the remaining man during his pat down. The officer never felt beneath the outer clothing of the men until he had located guns on the outside clothing. Once the officer found the weapons on the two suspects, this gave him probable cause to fully search those individuals for any other contraband. He then called for backup, and took all three men into custody, and Terry, along with the other man whom had a weapon, were to be charged with carrying concealed weapons.

Terry was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, and was sentenced to one to three years. The gun and ammunition confiscated by the police offer was used as evidence in the trial. The defense had filed a pre-trial motion to have the evidence suppressed. Any evidence found as the result of an illegal search, in this case the gun, would not be admissible. However, first the search needed to be deemed illegal. The motion was denied, as the judge felt that on the basis of the officer's experience, he had cause to conduct an interrogation, therefore not violating Terry's fourth amendment rights. Upon the outcome of the trial, the defense appealed to the Supreme Court.

The main question the Supreme Court had was whether Terry's right to personal security was violated by an unreasonable search and seizure. First, the Court decided that any time an officer restrains a person's ability to walk away, he is seized. The Court also said that a patting of outer clothing is indeed a search. Therefore, the judgment here is as to whether or not the actions were considered reasonable. They went on to state that when practical, police must have probable cause, and a warrant to perform a search. However, during on-the-spot observations during a beat, it is not practical for an officer to obtain a warrant. Yet, good faith alone cannot be enough to determine a situation unpractical, and to override these regulations. The Court believed that the actions the officer witnessed were enough to allow the officer to reasonably suspect the men could have been armed. The search was carefully restricted to the outer clothing where a weapon may have been located. On the one man where no weapon was found, the officer discontinued his search. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction to Terry.

The outcome of this case causes repercussions that are not obvious to some. A police officer now has the right to detain and search any individual, without a warrant, or even probable cause, as long as he or she can justify a suspicion that the individual may be armed. Also, anything the officer feels during that pat down may then be used as probable cause, allowing the officer to complete a full search. Since Terry v Ohio, other cases have come before the Supreme Court that have extended the power of the "stop and frisk", extending that power to "frisk" cars, for example. Whenever the judiciary "creates" law, it can and will cause controversy, and this is no exception.

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