Terry v. Ohio 1968

views updated

Terry v. Ohio 1968

Petitioner: John W. Terry

Respondent: State of Ohio

Petitioner's Claim: That Officer Martin McFadden violated the Fourth Amendment when he stopped and frisked petitione r on the streets of Cleveland without probable cause.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Louis Stokes

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Reuben M. Payne

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Abe Fortas, John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: William O. Douglas

Date of Decision: June 10, 1968

Decision: The Supreme Court affirmed Terry's conviction for carrying a concealed weapon.

Significance: In Terry, the Supreme Court said police officers do not need probable cause to stop and frisk suspicious people who might be carrying weapons.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects privacy. It requires law enforcement officers to have probable cause before they seize or arrest a person and search his belongings. Probable cause means good reason to believe that the person has committed a crime. In Terry v.Ohio, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the police can stop and frisk a suspicious person in public without probable cause.

Casing the Joint

Martin McFadden, a police officer and detective for 39 years, was patrolling the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, on October 31, 1963. That afternoon, McFadden saw two men, John W. Terry and Richard D. Chilton, standing on a street corner. McFadden's experience told him the men looked suspicious, so he began to observe them from a nearby store entrance.

As McFadden watched, Terry and Chilton took turns walking past and looking inside a store window. Between them the men walked back and forth past the store twelve times. At that point a third man joined them for a brief discussion on the street corner. When the third man left, Terry and Chilton continued to take turns walking past the same store window to peer inside. Ten minutes later they headed down the street in the same direction as the third man whom they had met.

McFadden believed the three men were getting ready to rob the store they were watching. Because it was daytime, he also suspected they were armed and dangerous. McFadden followed Terry and Chilton and found them in front of Zucker's store with the third man. McFadden introduced himself as a police officer and asked for their names. When the men only mumbled in response, McFadden grabbed Terry, spun him around to face the other two men, and frisked him. McFadden felt a gun inside Terry's coat. He immediately ordered the three men to go into Zucker's store.

When everyone was inside, McFadden removed Terry's overcoat and found a .38 caliber revolver inside. McFadden ordered the three men to put their hands up on the wall. He then patted down Chilton and the third man to find a revolver in Chilton's overcoat. Ohio convicted Terry and Chilton of carrying concealed weapons.

Terry and Chilton appealed their convictions. They argued that McFadden's stop and frisk was a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. McFadden conducted the stop and frisk without probable cause to believe that Terry and Chilton had committed a crime. After all, there was nothing illegal about walking around the streets of Cleveland. Without probable cause, Terry and Chilton said the stop and frisk was illegal under the Fourth Amendment. If that was true, Ohio was not allowed to use the evidence of the concealed weapons, meaning the cases should have been dismissed for lack of evidence.

The court of appeals rejected this argument and affirmed Terry's and Chilton's convictions. When Terry and Chilton appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, it dismissed the appeal without considering the case. Terry and Chilton finally asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Before it did, Chilton died, so the Supreme Court was left to consider Terry's case.

Stop and Frisk Approved

With an 8–1 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed Terry's conviction. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren approved the stop-and-frisk tactic as a legal police procedure.


I n 1995, Sam Wardlow was on the streets of Chicago in an area known for drug deals. When a caravan of four police cars appeared, Wardlow fled on foot. Officers Nolan and Harvey chased and caught Wardlow on a nearby street. When Officer Nolan frisked Wardlow, he found a .38 caliber handgun. Illinois convicted Wardlow of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.

Wardlow appealed his conviction. Wardlow argued that the police did not have any reason to be suspicious of him. That meant the stop and frisk was an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed Wardlow's conviction. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said police are allowed to stop a man who flees from them in a high crime area. The circumstances of the flight give the police reason to be suspicious and to investigate.

Warren said the Fourth Amendment is designed to protect privacy. A stop and frisk is a search and seizure that invades a person's privacy. When the police stop and frisk someone who is innocent of a crime, it is especially offensive. Police, however, need to investigate suspicious activity. When they do, they need to protect themselves from people who might be armed and dangerous.

Warren rejected Terry's argument that police need probable cause to conduct a stop and frisk. He said the Fourth Amendment does not require probable cause for all searches and seizures. It only requires that a search and seizure be reasonable. When police see suspicious activity by people who might be armed and dangerous, it is reasonable to stop them for questions and frisk them for weapons. If the stop and frisk reveals no illegal activity, the police must let them go immediately. Warren said this result created the best balance between the right of privacy and needs of law enforcement.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote a dissenting opinion, meaning he disagreed with the Court's decision. Douglas said the Fourth Amendment requires probable cause for every search and seizure. When the Court creates an exception, Americans lose protection for privacy. Despite Douglas's concern, Terry remains the law of the land. Police are allowed to stop suspicious people and frisk them for weapons without reason to believe they have committed a crime.

Suggestions for further reading

Franklin, Paula A. The Fourth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Greenhouse, Linda. "Supreme Court Roundup; Flight Can Justify Search By Police, High Court Rules." New York Times, January 13, 2000.

Persico, Deborah A. Mapp v. Ohio: Evidence and Search Warrants. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

—-. New Jersey v. T.L.O: Drug Searches in Schools. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Shattuck, John H.F. Rights of Privacy. Skokie: National Textbook Co., 1977.

Wetterer, Charles M. The Fourth Amendment: Search and Seizure. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

About this article

Terry v. Ohio 1968

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article