Terry v. Ohio

Studying the Terry v. Ohio case, or interested in learning more? We break down the summary, brief, key players, facts and outcomes for you on TestMax.

Terry v. Ohio Summary

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of Ohio and the Cleveland police, who conducted a “stop-and-frisk” of a suspect named Terry. The Court held that the limited search that occurred in this case was an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy because the “stop” was conducted with reasonable suspicion that the suspect was involved in criminal activities and the “frisk” was conducted with reasonable cause to believe that the suspect was armed and required a protective pat-down (The Fourth Amendment right to privacy governs the execution of “searches and seizures”). The Court’s holding distinguished a “stop-and-frisk” from a “search incident to a lawful arrest”, noting that a “search incident to a lawful arrest” which would require the elevated standard of probable cause to conduct an arrest—a form of seizure.

Key Players in Terry v. Ohio

  • 1Appellants: John Terry, who was frisked by police and whose gun was seized during that search.
  • 2Appellees: The state of Ohio and the local Cleveland police force who conducted a search and seizure of Terry’s person and his property.

Terry v. Ohio Brief

The central themes of this case are “Terry stop-and-frisk”, searches and seizures, the right to privacy included in the Fourth Amendment, the exclusionary rule, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (as the basis for the exclusionary rule).

Terry v. Ohio Facts

The Cleveland police confronted Terry after seeing him pacing back and forth in front of a building dozens of times and, simultaneously, communicating with another man. The Cleveland police claimed that they had probable cause to arrest him. They also claimed that they had reasonable suspicion to believe that he was carrying a firearm and was “casing the joint” in order to carry out some sort of crime. The police then stopped Terry, proceeded to conduct a pat-down of his person, ordered Terry into the building, conducted another pat-down of Terry, and retrieved a revolver from his pocket. The revolver was used as evidence against Terry at a state trial that resulted in a conviction. The state court found that, while the Cleveland officers did not have probable cause to arrest Terry, they did possess a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that allowed them to stop and interrogate Terry. It also found that the officers had reasonable cause to believe that Terry was armed—a belief which constituted a lawful basis for frisking him. The Ohio Supreme Court dismissed Terry’s appeal on the basis that it did not raise any constitutional issues. Terry then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Terry v. Ohio Decision

The outcome of this case was a ruling in favor of the appellees based on the Court’s finding that the police had reasonable cause to believe that Terry was armed and that the police, in order to protect others from Terry, had the right to conduct a limited search of him—a “frisk”—for weapons. The Court’s ruling on to state that the police had a right to “stop” him because they had a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and that they could, thus, make “reasonable inquiries” on that basis. The Court concluded that such a limited and “reasonable” search was consistent with the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, and that any private property seized during that search could properly be used as evidence and should not be subject to the exclusionary rule.

The Court defined a “search” as an examination of the exterior of a suspect’s clothing for weapons. The Court defined a “seizure” as an incident in which the police approach an individual and “restrain his freedom to walk away”. It defined the rights inherent in the Fourth Amendment as rights which “protect people not places” and noted that the right of a person to be in “possession and control of his person free from all restraint or interference of others” is “sacred”. Because the right “protects people not places”, an “on-the-street encounter” with police involving a search of the individual invokes rights included in the Fourth Amendment. Per the Court, there must be “specific justification for any intrusion upon” an individual’s person. The Court concluded that, in the case of the Terry “stop-and-frisk”, such “specific justification” could be demonstrated through the showings of “reasonable suspicion” and “reasonable cause” defined above.

Key Takeaways for Law Students

  • 1A Terry “stop-and-frisk” is consistent with the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. To be legal, a Terry “stop-and-frisk” requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to conduct the “stop” (and accompanying interrogation) as well as reasonable cause to believe that the suspect is armed in order to conduct a protective “frisk” of the suspect.
  • 2Probable cause for an arrest is not required to conduct a Terry “stop-and-frisk”./li>