Terry v. Ohio

Following is the case brief for Terry v. Ohio, Supreme Court of the United States, (1968)

Case Summary of Terry v. Ohio

  • Three men, including Terry (defendant), were approached by an officer who had observed their alleged suspicious behavior.
  • The officer suspected the men were planning to rob the store. After the officer inquired into what they were doing, the men responded by mumbling.
  • Officer then searched each man, uncovering a gun from two of the three suspects.
  • Terry, one of the men in possession of a gun, was convicted of possession of a concealed weapon.
  • Terry appealed claiming the search violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • The United States Supreme Court held that the search was reasonable so long as the officer has reasonable suspicion a crime was afoot.

Terry v. Ohio Case Brief

Statement of Facts:

Officer McFadden observed two men outside of a store walking up to the window then away several times. A third man met up with the initial two and engaged in conversation.  The plainly clothed officer developed suspicion that the men may be planning to rob the store. McFadden approached the men and after identifying himself as an officer asked what they were doing. The men mumbled back a response. McFadden then grabbed Terry, turned him around and patted him down to determine if he was armed. The search revealed a gun in Terry’s coat pocket. After conducting the same search on the second man, another gun was revealed. Once at trial, the officer testified he thought the men may have been armed.

Procedural History:

An Ohio trial court convicted Terry with carrying a concealed weapon. Terry appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Issues and Holding:

May a police officer detain an individual on the street absent probable cause and conduct a limited search to find weapons? Yes.

Judgment:

Affirmed by the Majority.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Officers may conduct a search limited for weapons when they observe unusual conduct leading them to reasonably suspect criminal activity is afoot and the individual(s) involved is/are armed.

Reasoning:

An officer may identify himself as the police and make initial inquiries. This conduct is proper when the officer observes conduct leading him to develop reasonable suspicion that a crime is occurring or about to occur. If the officer believes a threat to himself of others still exists after such an inquiry, a limited search may be performed to find weapons.

The Court held that an individual is seized when stopped by a police officer on the street because he is not free to walk away. As a result, the Fourth Amendment protections prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures apply. The Court also stated that a “pat down” of outer clothing constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court held that the constitutionality of the search depended on whether or not the scope of the search was reasonable in light of the circumstances.  The test used to determine reasonableness is that the interest in officer safety must outweigh the suspect’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

The Court held that an officer’s interest in the safety of himself and others outweighs an individual’s Fourth Amendment right. In addition, when an individual is stopped on the street, the police may conduct a proper search for weapons if based on the facts and circumstances, the officer reasonably believes the person is armed.

Here, considering the circumstances, it was reasonable for the experienced officer to suspect the two men were planning a robbery. In addition, the government’s interest in law enforcement trumps any minimal invasion of privacy each may have experienced when approached by the officer. The Court also determined the pat-down was reasonable as the officer’s initial concerns were not abated as a result of the responses given.  The officer stated that the pat down was conducted under the belief either men could have been armed.

As a result, it was proper for the officer to conduct a searched for weapons, as the interest in the safety of the officer and the public outweighed any privacy right the individuals had under the 4th Amendment.

Concurring/Dissenting opinion:

Concurrence (Harlan):

The police may immediately stop and search a citizen on the street to ensure their own safety. Asking questions first is not required.

Concurrence (White):

When an individual is stopped on the street does not need to answer an officer’s questions. Such refusal may add to the officer’s suspicion, but it may not provide a basis for the arrest.

Dissenting (Douglas):

A magistrate must establish probable cause before issuing a warrant. Permitting a police officer to conduct a search and seizure on the basis of reasonable suspicion provides an officer with greater authority than a judge and is improper.

Significance:

Terry v. Ohio was the landmark case that provided the name for the “Terry stop.” It established the constitutionality of a limited search for weapons when an officer has reasonable suspicion to believe a crime is afoot based on the circumstances.

Student Resources:

http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/392/1.html
https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/392/1/

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