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What is a “Terry Stop?”

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 24, 2024

A “Terry Stop,” also known as a “stop and frisk,” is a specific type of police encounter in which law enforcement officers temporarily detain an individual based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, which might violate their Fourth Amendment rights.

Stemming from the landmark Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio (1968), this legal concept permits officers to conduct a brief search without the need for probable cause that would justify an arrest. 

What is a “Terry Stop?”
A “Terry Stop” allows police to temporarily detain someone based on reasonable suspicion.

The rationale behind a Terry Stop is to balance preventing and investigating crime with protecting individuals' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

When a police officer reasonably suspects that an individual is armed, engaged in, or about to be engaged in criminal conduct, they may briefly stop and detain an individual for a pat-down search of outer clothing. Simply put, a Terry stop is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

In a traffic stop, the Terry condition of a lawful investigatory stop is met whenever it is lawful for the police to detain a vehicle and its occupants pending an inquiry into a vehicular violation. The police do not need to believe that any vehicle occupant is involved in criminal activity.

In other words, a Terry search need not be limited to a stop and frisk of the person but may also extend to a protective search of the passenger compartment of a car if an officer possesses a reasonable belief based on specific facts that the suspect is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons. The length of time a Terry detention may be varies depending on the circumstances.

However, the Terry Stop has been a matter of some controversy and debate, not just because of the thin line between a valid warrantless search and a Fourth Amendment violation but also because critics have widely observed the disproportionate use of Terry Stops against minorities and people of color.

There are some cases where a court held the stop-and-frisk policy violated the Fourth Amendment because it rendered stop-and-frisk more frequent for black and hispanic individuals.

What is the Definition of the “Terry Stop?”

“Terry Stop” originates from the 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. In this case, the Court ruled that a police officer could stop and frisk a person without arresting them, provided that the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.

The Terry Stop (stop and frisk) is the authority to conduct an investigative detention and frisk of a criminal suspect. It is arguably the most significant case law supporting officer safety and proactive patrol and investigation. 

When properly applied, it permits law enforcement officers to interdict a crime before it occurs and protects them from a potentially deadly assault. For a Terry Stop to be lawful, two primary conditions must be met:

  • Reasonable Suspicion: The officer must have a specific and articulable suspicion based on facts and circumstances. This is a lower standard than probable cause, which is required for arrests.
  • Limited Scope: The stop and frisk should be limited to a brief “pat-down” search over the clothing to ensure that the suspect is not armed and presents no immediate threat to the officer's safety or others. The search is not intended to find evidence of a crime but to check for weapons.

The Intersection of the Terry Stop and the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. It states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

The central question is whether a Terry Stop constitutes an “unreasonable” search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio held that such stops are a necessary compromise, balancing an individual's right to privacy and the community's interest in preventing crime and ensuring officer safety.

What are the Controversies and Curtailment Attempts?

Despite their legal standing, Terry Stops has been the subject of controversy, particularly regarding their potential for abuse and racial profiling. Critics argue that such stops disproportionately target minority communities, undermining trust between law enforcement and the public. 

In response, some states and cities have attempted to curtail the use of Terry Stops through various measures, such as limiting the scope of searches and requiring data collection on stops.

Floyd v. City of New York

A significant case highlighting these concerns is Floyd v. City of New York (2011), one of a set of cases in a class-action lawsuit challenging the NYPD's widespread stop-and-frisk practice. 

The court found that the policy violated the plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights, marking a pivotal moment in the discussion of Terry Stops and racial profiling. While the stop-and-frisk policy in New York has been halted, discussions are still in play more than a decade later to attempt to refine the rules around it.

What are the Practical Implications for the Accused?

For individuals accused of federal crimes, the nuances of a Terry Stop can significantly impact the admissibility of evidence and the conduct of law enforcement officers. 

Suppose there is a possibility that police crossed the line between a valid Terry Stop and a Fourth Amendment Violation. In that case, a skilled criminal defense attorney can take steps to challenge it and move to suppress the resulting evidence. This process may involve:

  • Questioning the Reasonable Suspicion: Arguing that the law enforcement officer did not have a specific and articulable basis for suspecting criminal activity, which is required to justify a Terry Stop.
  • Examining the Duration and Scope: This question challenges whether the stop was limited in time and scope to what was reasonably required to confirm or dispel the officer's suspicion, as the law demands.
  • Reviewing Racial Profiling Claims: Investigating if the stop was influenced by racial profiling, which is unconstitutional and can render any evidence obtained during the stop inadmissible in court.
  • Analyzing Officer's Experience and Training: Scrutinizing the experience and training of the officer who conducted the stop to determine if they could accurately interpret the behavior as suspicious.
  • Evaluating the Consistency of Officer Testimony: Assessing the consistency and credibility of the officer's testimony regarding their reasons for the stop and actions during the encounter.
  • Demanding Body Camera Footage: Requesting any available body camera footage or other evidence that may contradict the officer's account of the stop or demonstrate a lack of reasonable suspicion.

For more information, contact Eisner Gorin LLP, a federal criminal defense law firm based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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