Terry Stop

A Terry Stop is the authorized stopping and detaining of someone based on suspicions that the person has been involved in illegal activity. The individual, in this case, is not placed under arrest, but detained – usually in handcuffs – for officer safety during a brief investigation. The term’s origin comes from the 1968 case Terry v. Ohio, in which the Supreme Court held that police are authorized to briefly detain an individual whom they suspect may be involved in an illicit activity. Further, the Court held that police may also conduct a search of the suspect’s outer clothing for weapons, if they feel such a search is warranted. To explore this concept, consider the following Terry Stop definition.

Definition of Terry Stop


  1. The authorized, temporary detainment of an individual based on an officer’s suspicion he or she is involved in illegal activity.


1968    Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio.

What is a Terry Stop

The term “Terry Stop,” or “investigative detention,” refers to the lawful detention of a person, by law enforcement officers, for a brief period of time. This enables officers to maintain safety while investigating a situation. During such a detainment, police are also authorized to conduct what is known as a “weapons pat-down,” or a “frisk”. A weapons pat-down is a quick, over-the-clothes pat-down that a police officer performs to ensure that the individual being detained does not have any weapons hidden on his person. This is done if the officer suspects the detained individual to be potentially “armed and dangerous.”

In order to justify performing a Terry Stop, the officer(s) at the scene must be able to prove specific facts that would lead any reasonable police officer to believe that the detained individual has or was about to engage in illegal activity. For example, a Terry Stop is not to be conducted because a suspect has a history of criminal behavior. The threat must be immediate.

Further, a weapons pat-down must be limited to those areas in which potential weapons could be uncovered. In accordance with the “plain view” doctrine, police are permitted to seize any weapons or contraband they may discover during a frisk.

Purpose of a Terry Stop

The purpose of a Terry Stop is to perform what is essentially a mini investigation for the purposes of confirming whether or not the suspect is, in fact, engaged in a criminal activity. Essentially, the purpose of a Terry Stop is to stop a suspect in order to investigate the matter further, even when the police officer lacks probable cause to immediately make an arrest. If probable cause develops during the Terry Stop, then the officer will make the arrest. If not, then the suspect will be released.

Another purpose of a Terry Stop is to gather information for criminal intelligence that may be used later on, such as suspects’ names, addresses, and locations they frequent. This information may help police solve open crimes in the future, by either confirming or discounting the suspicion of a particular individual’s involvement in a crime.

Fourth Amendment and the Terry Stop

The Fourth Amendment does not specifically permit a police officer to conduct a brief, investigatory stop and detainment, when that officer has a reasonable and clear suspicion that the individual being detained is engaged in criminal behavior. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that the Fourth Amendment protects law enforcement in that it allows officers to stop suspects and investigate them even before they have the probable cause necessary to make an arrest.

An example of a Terry Stop that was conducted illegally occurred in 2017, when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at JFK airport boarded one of the planes and demanded that all of the passengers on board provide proof of identification before leaving the plane. Such a demand might be legal if the passengers were trying to get into the country illegally. However, this Terry Stop violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, due to the fact that the passengers on board the plane were all legally permitted to be on U.S. soil.

How Long is a Terry Stop

An individual can be detained at the scene in a Terry Stop for as long as it takes the officer(s) to conduct a thorough enough investigation to either confirm or deny probable cause to arrest. If the person is detained for too long without the establishment of probable cause, then he or she may have a civil case for having been unlawfully detained.

Typically, officers follow the unwritten “20-minute rule.” This means that, if probable cause is not established within 20 minutes, the suspect must be released. However, it is important for officers to remember that every case is different, and, while 20 minutes may be excessive for one investigation, it may not be enough for another. Delays that the police inflict, such as waiting longer than 20 minutes for back-up to arrive, cannot justify the delay of a Terry Stop release, and will almost always be used against the officer(s) involved.

Terry Frisk

A Terry frisk is a limited search that police can perform of a person’s outer clothing to confirm whether the suspect is armed, thus posing a danger to officers. Terry frisks are performed to ensure the officer’s safety, in that the officer can be sure that the suspect will not be pulling out a knife or a gun with the intention of harming the officer. Officers may choose to conduct a Terry frisk if, relying upon their past experience in similar situations or the nature of the crime at hand, they have reason to believe that the suspect is armed with a weapon and may intend to use that weapon on the officer.

If the officer finds something he believes to be a weapon, he is authorized to intrude upon the suspect’s clothing and seize it. Officers should take care to document every detail during a Terry frisk so as to justify such a maneuver should a case for unlawful detention be pressed by the suspect later in civil court.

Terry Stop Example from the Case that Started It All

An example of a Terry Stop being argued in a court of law comes from none other than the case that originated the term: Terry v. Ohio (1968). On Halloween 1963, Detective Martin McFadden with the Cleveland Police Department noticed two men standing on a street corner, acting suspicious. The two men – John Terry and Richard Chilton – were walking back and forth along an identical path, and they kept pausing to stare into the same store window.

Each time the men completed their route, they would conference with each other on the corner. This ritual was repeated about a dozen times, and after one of these “sessions,” a third man, Carl Katz, joined them, only to leave quickly after a short conversation.

Detective McFadden, in plainclothes, suspected the two men of “casing the joint,” with intentions of robbing the store. He followed them and watched them join up with Carl a few blocks away, in front of another store. McFadden approached the men and identified himself as a police officer. He then asked their names. After one of the men mumbled incoherently, McFadden spun John around and performed a frisk, whereupon he discovered a pistol in the pocket of Terry’s overcoat.

McFadden reached into the pocket but was unable to pull the gun free. He then ordered the men into the store, took off Terry’s overcoat, took out his revolver, and ordered the men to face the wall with their hands raised. He then frisked Richard and Katz, and seized a revolver from Chilton’s jacket pocket. The three men were then taken to the police station, and John and Richard were brought up on charges of illegally carrying concealed weapons.

John’s and Richard’s attorneys moved to have the weapons suppressed on the grounds that the search and seizure that was conducted was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The prosecution, on the other hand, argued the guns were lawfully seized during a detainment when the officer “had reasonable cause to believe … that the defendants were conducting themselves suspiciously, and some interrogation should be made of their action.”

This brief investigation, and search for weapons that could endanger the officer’s life, led to the defendants’ lawful arrest. The court denied the defense’s motion to suppress the evidence. The court held that McFadden had cause to believe that John and Richard were acting suspicious, that he was warranted in interrogating them, and that he had to the right to pat down their clothing for his own protection.

John and Richard were ultimately found guilty. The appellate court affirmed their convictions, and when the matter was brought before the Ohio State Supreme Court, the Court dismissed the appeal on the ground that there was “no substantial constitutional question” whatsoever. The case made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States, wherein the Court held – in an 8-to-1 decision – that the search McFadden had conducted was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Further, the Court held that the weapons that were seized could be put into evidence against John.

The Court found that McFadden had acted on more than just a “hunch,” and that, specifically: “a reasonably prudent man would have been warranted in believing [John] was armed and thus presented a threat to the officer’s safety while he was investigating his suspicious behavior.” Ultimately, McFadden’s search was ruled to be limited in accordance with the law, and that he had conducted the search to protect his safety during the course of the investigation. This Supreme Court ruling led to the names “Terry Stop,” and “Terry Frisk,” which are widely used today.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Plain View Doctrine – An exception to the warrant process that authorizes law enforcement to seize items which they notice and immediately recognize as contraband while they are lawfully present in an area protected by the Fourth Amendment.
  • Probable Cause – Facts and circumstances leading to the belief that an accused person has committed a crime. Probable cause does not arise from a suspicion or a “hunch,” but from observable facts and circumstances.