Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, John W. Terry (the “Petitioner”), was stopped and searched by an officer after the officer observed the Petitioner seemingly casing a store for a potential robbery. The officer approached the Petitioner for questioning and decided to search him first.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. An officer may perform a search for weapons without a warrant, even without probable cause, when the officer reasonably believes that the person may be armed and dangerous.
Issue. Whether a search for weapons without probable cause for arrest is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution (“Constitution”)?
Held. The Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) held that it is a reasonable search when an officer performs a quick seizure and a limited search for weapons on a person that the officer reasonably believes could be armed. A typical beat officer would be unduly burdened by being prohibited from searching individuals that the officer suspects to be armed.
The long-prevailing standard of probable cause protects citizens from rash and unreasonable interferences with privacy and from unfounded charges of crime, while giving fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community's protection.View Full Point of Law
Justice John Harlan (“J. Harlan”) agreed with the majority, but he emphasized an additional necessity of the reasonableness of the stop to investigate the crime.
Justice Byron White (“J. White”) agreed with the majority, but he emphasized that the particular facts of the case, that there was suspicion of a violent act, merit the forcible stop and frisk.
Discussion. The facts of the case are important to understand the Supreme Court’s willingness to allow the search. The suspicious activity was a violent crime, armed robbery, and if the officer’s suspicions were correct then he would be in a dangerous position to approach the men for questioning without searching them. The officer also did not detain the men for a long period of time to constitute an arrest without probable cause.