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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A landmark case, Terry v. Ohio has been reviewed recently in light of the controversy regarding New York's stop-question-frisk law that was recently "blunted" by a federal court opinion. In this 1961 case, a Cleveland police detective, Martin McFadden, observed two men standing on a corner of Euclid Avenue; these men appeared to be acting suspiciously to the experienced detective who noticed that they traversed the street and returned, each from different directions, then looked into a store front each time they stopped. After their fifth or sixth trip, the two men were joined by a third man, who quickly conferred with them and departed. Having observed these actions, McFadden became suspicious of the two men whom he thought were probably "casing a job, a stick-up"; so, he followed them and observed that the third man rejoined them a couple of blocks away in front of a store.

McFadden approached these three men, identifying himself as a policeman since he was not in uniform, and asked them their names. According to McFadden, because they merely mumbled something as though attempting to hide their identities, he quickly turned Terry around and "patted him down," feeling a weapon in the inside pocket of Terry's overcoat. Because McFadden could not reach it, he ordered the men into the store and against the wall, where he took off Terry's overcoat and seized his revolver and found a revolver in Chilton's outside overcoat; the third man, Katz did not appear to be carrying a weapon. Then, all three men were taken to a police station, and Terry and Chilton were charged with carrying concealed weapons.

When Terry and Chilton went on trial, the defense argued that their Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure, were violated. The court did admit the weapons as evidence on the ground that the arresting officer had sufficient cause to believe that the men were acting suspiciously. Further, the court ruled that the officer was within the law when he interrogated them, and he had the right to pat down their outer clothing in order to protect himself from harm since he had reasonable cause to believe they were armed. Most importantly, the trial court made a clear distinction between a "stop" that is investigatory and between a "frisk" or "pat-down" for weapons of the outer clothing and a complete, or full-blown, search for evidence of a crime. 

Terry and Chilton were found guilty; later, the appeal was denied in Ohio's State Supreme Court. The case for John W. Terry was then taken to the United States Supreme Court where it was also upheld. The Court ruled that Terry was subjected to a "reasonable"--comparable to actions that would allow for a warrant-- "seizure" and "search" within the definitions of the Fourth Amendment, and their individual rights were not violated. 

The record evidences the tempered act of a policeman who in the course of an investigation had to make a quick decision as to how to protect himself and others from possible danger, and took limited steps to do so.

Justice White concurred with the decision, adding that there also is "nothing in the Constitution which prevents any police officer from addressing questions to anyone on the streets." Because of Terry v. Ohio, police officers have been allowed to stop and search someone that they believe may be about to commit a crime, doing a "frisk for weapons as protection for themselves and the community they serve.