Terry v Ohio

In 1968, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision in the case of Terry v Ohio. This case was highly significant because it determined that police may stop and frisk a citizen without a search warrant. This decision became the groundwork for the legal standard of reasonable suspicion.

The case

In 1967, a detective on patrol in downtown Cleveland observed two men standing on a street corner. The men were taking turns walking down a sidewalk, pausing briefly each time to stare in a particular store window. The detective noted that after each pass, the men were meeting back up on the corner and discussing something. At one point, a third man showed up, and after a brief conference, the third man left again. The detective watched the original two men pace in front of the store a total of 24 times before walking away and meeting the third man in front of another store a few blocks away.

This activity seemed highly suspicious to the detective. He approached the three men and identified himself as a police officer. When he asked their names, the men were hesitant to respond, and the detective quickly spun one of them around and patted down the outside of his clothes. The pat-down revealed a pistol in the man’s coat pocket. At this point, the detective ordered the three men inside the store. He conducted similar pat-downs of the other two men’s outer garments, one of which revealed another pistol. The detective then arrested the three men, and two of them were charged with carrying concealed weapons.

Reasonable suspicion: a new legal standard

After going before the Supreme Court, it was decided that the detective did not violate the men’s Fourth Amendment rights because he had reasonable grounds to believe that they were acting suspiciously. Further, the court deemed that the detective acted lawfully by frisking the men, as he had a reasonable suspicion to believe that they might be armed, and the detective acted out of concern for his personal safety.

Stop and Frisk Reasonable Suspicion Timeline