Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case: Terry v. Ohio

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), is a Landmark Supreme Court Criminal Procedure case, which decided the constitutionality of a "Stop & Frisk." The stop & frisk is a level of search related to an officer's perception that the defendant is engaging in some suspicious behavior, and the frisk is conducted in order to ensure that the suspect is not armed during the confrontation.

In the case, a police officer in plain clothes noticed some suspicious looking men while on patrol. The officer watched from a distance as the men started walking in front of a store and peering into its front window at least a dozen times each, then meeting to confer after each viewing. They also briefly conferred, then followed, a third person. The officer got the impression that the men might be "casing the joint," in other words, planning a robbery.

The officer followed his intuition when he approached the men and began to question them. He then spun Terry around and conducted a pat down of his outer jacket, confirming his suspicion that Terry had a gun on his person. He similarly patted down the other two men, and found another of them to have a gun on him. The officer then arrested the men.

Reasonableness of Search and Seizure

The court examined whether the interaction with the officer constituted an unreasonable search and seizure, stating that under the Fourth Amendment, the government has the ability to subject people to reasonable searches and seizures, so long as other factors are satisfied.

The court rejected the argument that police can only conduct searches, in the proper sense of the term, when they have the probable cause necessary to execute an arrest, as that deals with the warrant section of the amendment.

The rule essentially boils down to whether a reasonable person would believe that the officer was justified in his actions based upon the behavior he was investigating, and weather he had reason to believe the suspect might be armed.

In this case, the court ruled, the officer was justified in his actions. His decision to stop the suspects was based upon their suspicious behavior as a reflection of his past experiences. He patted them down because he believed they had a gun, and he happened to be right. In the context of reasonableness, the officer's actions were justified.