Terry v. Ohio
392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1968,
20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968)

A police officer witnessed three men pacing in front of a jewelry store and suspected that a robbery was being planned. He approached the men and identified himself, then performed frisks of defendants Richard Chilton and John Terry and discovered illegal concealed weapons. Defendants were convicted and appealed, claiming that the frisk violated their Fourth Amendment right against unlawful searches and seizures.

The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, finding that when a law enforcement officer has “reasonable grounds” for suspecting that a criminal suspect may be armed, he may pat down the outer layer of the suspect’s clothing for weapons. The ruling held that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures is not violated when a pat-down is performed based on reasonable suspicion for the purpose of ensuring officer safety.

What you should know about stop and frisk law:

The Court’s ruling in Terry v. Ohio has been understood to validate the practice of frisking (or patting down) suspects for weapons under diverse circumstances. Generally, law enforcement officers will perform frisks at their discretion, regardless of the “reasonable suspicion” standard established by the Terry ruling. Thus, it is not uncommon for frisks to be conducted for investigatory purposes where no actual evidence of a threat to officer safety exists.

Due to the prevalence of police frisks it is important for citizens to understand the rationale behind police authority to pat down suspects and the limitations the Court has placed on that authority:

   1. After initiating contact, police officers may pat down criminal suspects for weapons in order to provide for their safety and that of the public. This police practice is rarely, if ever, a violation of your constitutional rights.

   2. If you are frisked, any hard objects the officer detects can be removed from your pockets and inspected.

   3. You can be charged for possession of illegal weapons discovered through a lawful pat down.

   4.  Though your proximity to the officer creates a limited window of opportunity in which to assert your rights, you may verbally state that you do not consent to a full search of your person. If you do not wish to be searched following the pat down, verbally state your refusal to be searched as soon as possible in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

   5. Police cannot conduct frisks for the purpose of discovering evidence other than weapons. The Supreme Court has ruled that suspicious items other than weapons retain their Fourth Amendment protection during a frisk. This means that if a police officer claims that soft objects in your pocket feel like drugs, the objects cannot be further investigated without your consent.

For more information visit “How Do I Deal with Police on the Street” and order a DVD copy of Busted: The Citizen’s Guide to Police Encounters.