What is a “Terry” Stop?

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Bob had just come home from college to his hometown in Willoughby, Ohio and was enjoying a night out on the town in the newly revamped “flats” in Cleveland, Ohio with his old high school friends.  Unfortunately, the night out turned a little rambunctious while walking between bars when one of Bob’s old friends decided to throw a beer bottle against the wall right when police officers were walking past their group.  The officers stopped the whole group and frisked each one of the guys.  Bob ended up charged with drug possession for the baggy of marijuana the officer found in his pocket. Bob is furious and thinks the officers violated his fourth amendment rights and should not be able to charge him with anything. 

            Terry v. Ohio was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 and allows for officers to detain individuals for a brief time.  This detainment is frequently called a “Terry Stop” or an “investigative detention.” The decision in this case allows officers to conduct a pat down over the individual’s clothes to ensure the individual being detained does not have any weapons. Many times, officers will use the phrase “for officers’ safety” when testifying as to why they conducted this type of search.  The police are limited to searching just those areas that may hide a weapon, but any contraband they find can be seized.

            The facts that led to this case being heard by the supreme court happened in Cleveland, Ohio and involved a plainclothes officer who believed he was witnessing two men casing a store.  After watching the two individuals for a time, the officer approached the men and identified himself and asked for their names.  The officer then spun one of the men around and performed a frisk finding a gun in his pocket. The two individuals argued through their attorney that the search was a violation of the fourth amendment.  The court disagreed and indicated the search was valid and that the officer acted on more than a “hunch.”  

            The officer is only permitted to conduct this type of terry stop if there are specific facts that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe that the detained individual has engaged or was about to engage in illegal activity. In other words, there must be more than just a “hunch” that an individual is involved or about to be involved illegal activities.   Bob’s situation may have enough specific facts to allow the officer to pat down the individuals and conduct the investigative stop. 

            However, Bob may have an argument if he was detained for an unreasonable amount of time.  The stop should only be for as long as it takes for officers to gather probable cause to make an arrest or determine that there is no probable cause.  There is no hard-and-fast rule about the length of time involved.  The courts will look at the entire situation before deciding whether or not the detainment was excessive and therefore illegal. 

            If you have been detained by a police officer and the officer conducted a search that you believe was illegal, be sure to contact Bangerter Law and have an experienced criminal law attorney review your case.

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