Terry v. Ohio

United States Supreme Court

392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968)

 

In this landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes the validity of a stop-and-frisk conducted not on the basis of probable cause but of “reasonable suspicion.”

 

Mr. Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            … Terry was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to the statutorily prescribed term of one to three years in the penitentiary. Following the denial of a pretrial motion to suppress, the prosecution introduced in evidence two revolvers and a number of bullets seized from Terry and a codefendant, Richard Chilton, by Cleveland Police Detective Martin McFadden. At the hearing on the motion to suppress this evidence, Officer McFadden testified that while he was patrolling in plain clothes in downtown Cleveland at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon his attention was attracted by two men, Chilton and Terry, standing on the corner of Huron Road and Euclid Avenue. He had never seen the two men before, and he was unable to say precisely what first drew his eye to them. However, he testified that he had been a policeman for 39 years and a detective for 35 and that he had been assigned to patrol this vicinity of downtown Cleveland for shoplifters and pickpockets for 30 years. He explained that he had developed routine habits of observation over the years and that he would “stand and watch people or walk and watch people at many intervals of the day.” He added: “Now, in this case when I looked over they didn’t look right to me at the time.”

 

            His interest aroused, Officer McFadden took up a post of observation in the entrance to a store 300 to 400 feet away from the two men. “I get more purpose to watch them when I seen their movements,” he testified. He saw one of the men leave the other one and walk southwest on Huron Road, past some stores. The man paused for a moment and looked in a store window, then walked on a short distance, turned around and walked back toward the corner, pausing once again to look in the same store window. He rejoined his companion at the corner, and the two conferred briefly. Then the second man went through the same series of motions, strolling down Huron Road, looking in the same window, walking on a short distance, turning back, peering in the store window again, and returning to confer with the first man at the corner. The two men repeated this ritual alternately between five and six times apiece---in all roughly a dozen trips. At one point, while the two were standing together on the corner, a third man approached them and engaged them briefly in conversation. This man then left the two other and walked west on Euclid Avenue. Chilton and Terry resumed their measured pacing, peering, and conferring. After this had gone on for 10 to 12 minutes, the two men walked off together, heading west on Euclid Avenue, following the path taken earlier by the third man.

 

            By this time Officer McFadden had become thoroughly suspicious. He testified that after observing this elaborately casual and oft-repeated reconnaissance of the store window on Huron Road, he suspected the two men of “casing a job, a stick-up,” and that he considered it his duty as a police officer to investigate further. He added that he feared “they may have a gun.” Thus, Officer McFadden followed Chilton and Terry and saw them stop in front of Zucker’s store to talk to the same man who had conferred with them earlier on the street corner. Deciding that the situation was ripe for direct action, Officer McFadden approached the three men, identified himself as a police officer and asked for their names. At this point his knowledge was confined to what he had observed. He was not acquainted with any of the three men by name or by sight, and he had received no information concerning them from any other source. When the men “mumbled something” in response to his inquiries, Officer McFadden grabbed petitioner Terry, spun him around so that they were facing the other two, with Terry between McFadden and the other, and patted down the outside of his clothing. In the left breast pocket of Terry’s overcoat Officer McFadden felt a pistol. He reached inside the overcoat pocket, but was unable to remove the gun. At this point, keeping Terry between himself and the other, the officer ordered all three men to enter Zucker’s store. As they went in, he removed Terry’s overcoat completely, removed a .38-caliber revolver from the pocket and ordered all three men to face the wall with their hands raised. Officer McFadden proceeded to pat down the outer clothing of Chilton and the third man, Katz. He discovered another revolver in the outer pocket of Chilton’s overcoat, but no weapons were found on Katz. The officer testified that he only patted the men down to see whether they had weapons, and that he did not put his hands beneath the outer garments of either Terry or Chilton until he felt their guns. So far as appears from the record, he never placed his hands beneath Katz’ outer garments. Officer McFadden seized Chilton’s gun, asked the proprietor of the store to call a police wagon, and took all three men to the station, where Chilton and Terry were formally charged with carrying concealed weapons.

 

            On the motion to suppress the guns the prosecution took the position that they had been seized following a search incident to a lawful arrest. The trial court rejected this theory, stating that it “would be stretching the facts beyond reasonable comprehension” to find that Officer McFadden had probable cause to arrest the men before he patted them down for weapons. However, the court denied the defendants’ motion on the ground that Officer McFadden, on the basis of his experience, “had reasonable cause to believe ... that the defendants were conducting themselves suspiciously, and some interrogation should be made of their action.” Purely for his own protection, the court held, the officer had the right to pat down the outer clothing of these men, who he had reasonable cause to believe might be armed. The court distinguished between a investigatory “stop” and an arrest, and between a “frisk” of the outer clothing for weapons and a full-blown search for evidence of crime. The frisk, it held, was essential to the proper performance of the officer’s investigatory duties, for without it, “the answer to the police officer may be a bullet, and a loaded pistol discovered during the frisk is admissible.”

 

            After the court denied their motion to suppress, Chilton and Terry waived jury trial and pleaded not guilty. The court adjudged them guilty, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Judicial District, Cuyahoga County, affirmed. ... The Supreme Court of Ohio dismissed their appeal on the ground that no “substantial constitutional question” was involved. We granted certiorari, ... to determine whether the admission of the revolvers in evidence violated petitioner’s rights under the Fourth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth. ... We affirm the conviction.

 

            ... Unquestionably petitioner was entitled to the protection of the Fourth Amendment as he walked down the street in Cleveland. ... The question is whether in all the circumstances of this on-the-street encounter, his right to personal security was violated by an unreasonable search and seizure. ...

 

            In this case there can be no question … that Officer McFadden “seized” petitioner and subjected him to a “search” when he took hold of him and patted down the outer surfaces of his clothing. We must decide whether at that point it was reasonable for Officer McFadden to have interfered with petitioner’s personal security as he did. And in determining whether the seizure and search were “unreasonable” our inquiry is a dual one---whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception, and whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.

 

            If this case involved police conduct subject to the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment, we would have to ascertain whether “probable cause” existed to justify the search and seizure which took place. However, that is not the case. We do not retreat from our holdings that the police must, whenever practicable, obtain advance judicial approval of searches and seizures through the warrant procedure, ... or that in most instances failure to comply with the warrant requirement can only be excused by exigent circumstances. ... But we deal here with an entire rubric of police conduct---necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer on the beat---which historically has not been, and as a practical matter could not be, subjected to the warrant procedure. Instead, the conduct involved in this case must be tested by the Fourth Amendment’s general proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.

 

            Nonetheless, the notions which underlie both the warrant procedure and the requirement of probable cause remain fully relevant in this context. In order to assess the reasonableness of Officer McFadden’s conduct as a general proposition, it is necessary “first to focus upon the governmental interest which allegedly justifies official intrusion upon the constitutionally protected interests of the private citizen,” for there is “no ready test for determining reasonableness other than by balancing the need to search [or seize] against the invasion which the search [or seizure] entails.” ... And in justifying the particular intrusions the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion. ...

 

            Applying these principles to this case, we consider first the nature and extent of the governmental interests involved. One general interest is of course that of effective crime prevention and detection; it is this interest which underlies the recognition that a police officer may in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner approach a person for purposes of investigating possible criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest. ...

 

            The crux of this case, however, is not the propriety of Officer McFadden’s taking steps to investigate petitioner’s suspicious behavior, but rather, whether there was justification for McFadden’s invasion of Terry’s personal security by searching him for weapons in the course of that investigation. We are now concerned with more than the governmental interest in investigating crime; in addition, there is the more immediate interest of the police officer in taking steps to assure himself that the person with whom he is dealing is not armed with a weapon that could unexpectedly and fatally be used against him. Certainly it would be unreasonable to require that police officers take unnecessary risks in the performance of their duties. ...

 

            In view of these facts, we cannot blind ourselves to the need for law enforcement officers to protect themselves and other prospective victims of violence in situations where they may lack probable cause for an arrest. When an officer is justified in believing that the individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating at close range is armed and presently dangerous to the officer or to others, it would appear to be clearly unreasonable to deny the officer the power to take necessary measures to determine whether the person is in fact carrying a weapon and to neutralize the threat of physical harm.

 

            We must consider, however, the nature and quality of the intrusion on individual rights which must be accepted if police officers are to be conceded the right to search for weapons in situations where probable cause to arrest for crime is lacking. Even a limited search of the outer clothing for weapons constitutes a severe, though brief, intrusion upon cherished personal security, and it must surely bean annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating experience. ...

 

            We conclude that the revolver seized from Terry was properly admitted in evidence against him. At the time he seized petitioner and searched him for weapons, Officer McFadden had reasonable grounds to believe that petitioner was armed and dangerous, and it was necessary for the protection of himself and others to take swift measures to discover the true facts and neutralize the threat of harm if it materialized. The policeman carefully restricted his search to what was appropriate to the discovery of the particular items which he sought. Each case of this sort will, of course, have to be decided on its own facts. We merely hold today that where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous, where in the course of investigating this behavior he identifies himself as a policeman and makes reasonable inquiries, and where nothing in th

e initial stages of the encounter serves to dispel his reasonable fear for his own or others’ safety, he is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him. Such a search is a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, and any weapons seized may properly be introduced in evidence against the person from whom they were taken.

Affirmed.

 

 

Mr. Justice Black concurs in the judgment …

           

 

Mr. Justice Harlan, concurring. ...

 

 

Mr. Justice White, concurring. ...

 

 

Mr. Justice Douglas, dissenting.

 

            I agree that petitioner was “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. I also agree that frisking petitioner and his companions for guns was a “search.” But it is a mystery how that “search” and that “seizure” can be constitutional by Fourth Amendment standards, unless there was “probable cause” to believe that (1) a crime had been committed or (2) a crime was in the process of being committed or (3) a crime was about to be committed.

 

            The opinion of the Court disclaims the existence of “probable cause.” If loitering were in issue and that was the offense charged, there would be “probable cause” shown. But the crime here is carrying concealed weapons; and there is no basis for concluding that the officer had “probable cause” for believing that that crime was being committed. Had a warrant been sought, a magistrate would, therefore, have been unauthorized to issue one, for he can act only if there is a showing of “probable cause.” We hold today that the police have greater authority to make a “seizure” and conduct a “search” than a judge has to authorize such action. We have said precisely the opposite over and over again.

 

            In other words, police officers up to today have been permitted to effect arrests or searches without warrants only when the facts within their personal knowledge would satisfy the constitutional standard of probable cause. At the time of their “seizure” without a warrant they must possess facts concerning the person arrested that would have satisfied a magistrate that “probable cause” was indeed present. The term “probable cause” rings a bell of certainty that is not sounded by phrases such as “reasonable suspicion. ...”

 

            The infringement on personal liberty of any “seizure” of a person can only be “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment if we require the police to possess “probable cause” before they seize him. Only that line draws a meaningful distinction between an officer’s mere inkling and the presence of facts within the officer’s personal knowledge which would convince a reasonable man that the person seized has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a particular crime. ...