Synopsis of the U.S. Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio

April 30, 2023

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures is not violated when a police officer stops a suspect on the street and conducts a limited search for weapons if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime and has a reasonable belief that the person may be armed and dangerous.

The case began on October 31, 1963, when Cleveland police officer Martin McFadden observed two men, John W. Terry and Richard Chilton, walking back and forth in front of a downtown store, peering into the store window, and conferring with each other. McFadden became suspicious that the men were planning to commit a robbery, so he approached them and identified himself as a police officer. McFadden then conducted a pat-down search of the men and found a gun on Terry. Terry was subsequently charged and convicted of carrying a concealed weapon.

Terry’s attorney argued that the search was unconstitutional because it was conducted without a warrant and without probable cause. The Ohio Supreme Court, however, upheld the conviction, finding that the search was a valid “stop and frisk” that was based on the officer’s reasonable suspicion that the men were planning a robbery.

The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, upheld the conviction, with the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Court found that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures did not prohibit a police officer from conducting a limited search for weapons if the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the person had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime and had a reasonable belief that the person may be armed and dangerous.

The Court noted that the Fourth Amendment does not require a police officer to simply walk away from a potentially dangerous situation and that the officer’s duty to protect the public outweighed the minimal intrusion of the stop and frisk. The Court also emphasized that the stop and frisk must be based on specific and articulable facts and that the officer’s action must be reasonable in light of those facts.

Terry v. Ohio was a significant case in the development of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, as it established the principle of “reasonable suspicion” as the standard for a valid “stop and frisk.” Prior to this case, the standard for a valid search or seizure had been probable cause.

The case has been widely cited in subsequent court cases and has been used to justify a wide range of police actions, including the use of profiling and racial profiling. Critics of the case argue that it has led to increased police misconduct and racial discrimination, while supporters argue that it has allowed police to effectively combat crime.

In recent years, there have been calls to re-examine and potentially limit the scope of Terry v. Ohio, particularly in light of concerns about racial profiling and police misconduct. Some have argued that the standard of reasonable suspicion is too low and that the case has been used to justify a wide range of discriminatory and unconstitutional police practices.

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