Saturday, May 14, 2005


Case Brief: Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)

Here's another case brief that should make the lives of law school students and CJ students a whole lot easier. Please do not copy this verbatim. Instead, use it as reference for writing your own case brief. Sometimes the issues of older cases are hard to grasp compared to the varied legal issues surrounding the cases we work on today, which is the only reason I post my own briefs.

Name of the Case

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)

Facts of the Case

Detective McFadden was on the downtown beat, the same beat he had been working for a number of years, when he noticed two men (petitioner, Terry, and Chilton) who were strangers to the neighborhood standing on a street corner. Upon observation, he noticed the men would alternate and take turns passing in front of a store, and stopping to look inside of the window of it. He observed this take place close to 24 times, each time resulting in a conversation between the suspects. The two men were joined by a third, Katz, who quickly left the scene after a brief appearance. Detective McFadden suspected something was going on, and believed the trio was casing the store for a stick-up, so he proceeded to walk up to the suspects, identify himself as a peace officer, and ask their names. The suspects "mumbled something," upon being questioned, at which point Detective McFadden initiated a frisk and found a pistol in the overcoat of the petitioner. He then ordered the three suspects into a store, removed the overcoat of the petitioner, and seized the pistol. He proceeded to order the three to face an opposing wall, raise their hands in the air, and searched each of them, finding a pistol in Chilton's outside overcoat. The three were taken to the police station, and the petitioner and Chilton were charged with carrying concealed weapons. The defense moved to suppress the weapons, citing that the frisk by Detective McFadden was a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.


The facts surrounding the grounds for a lawful search and seizure without violating the Fourth Amendment surfaced over six points that were presented for review. The first issue is whether the Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures, and where this rule can be applied. (i.e. in homes, on the street, etc.) The second issue is whether or not the evidence that was seized can be used against the petitioner, due to the legality of the seizure. In concurrence with the second point, the third point addresses whether the exclusionary rule would go into effect, based upon the facts presented by the defense as to whether or not the seizure was lawful. The fourth issue at hand is whether or not the procedures of a "stop and frisk" applied to the situation involving the three suspects. The fifth issue involves a tier of circumstances, which branch from the idea of safety. In essence, a peace officer is allowed to make a reasonable search for weapons if he feels his life may be in danger, and the question posed is whether or not the frisking of the three suspects was warranted. Finally, the sixth issue deals with whether or not the search and seizure of the defendant and his companions falls within the boundaries of being "reasonable" as defined by a normal person.

Court Decision

The Court affirmed the decision of the trial court and the appellate court.

Rationale for the Decision

Chief Justice Warren wrote for the majority. The Fourth Amendment provides for protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, but does not protect suspects who are acting in a suspicious manner from being questioned by peace officers and possibly searched for contraband if the officer(s) believe the situation can escalate to a matter of life and limb. In simple terms the issue at hand is whether or not the evidence of the firearms that were seized can be suppressed based on the belief that the initial line of questioning that developed into a pat down was a violation of the suspects Fourth Amendment rights. From the point of view of the defense, the detective did not establish that the defendants were acting in a manner that required a search of their person in any way, shape, or form. However, the detective offered testimony that is had been his experience over thirty-plus years that when someone is acting in a manner as the defendant(s) were, it was most likely due to the fact that they were planning an illegal action of some sort. Acting in the best interest of his job description, the detective proceeded to question the defendants, and feeling that it would be prudent to protect himself, he initiated a search, which led to the seizure of two firearms from the defendants. The exclusionary rule removes items from evidence that are illegally seized. If the detective had initiated a frisk that involved more than patting down the outer portions of the garments of the defendants, there would be reason to exclude the firearms, but since the detective did not reach inside of the garments until he felt what he believed to be a pistol on the defendants, the proper method of a warranted search and seizure were followed.

Concurring Opinions

Justices Harlan and White offer concurring opinions. Justice Black concurs in judgment, but does not concur where the opinion relies on quotes from Katz v. United States or the concurring opinion in Warden v. Hayden.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Douglas offers the dissenting opinion of the court, citing the fact that no connection can be made by a reasonable person to conduct a reasonable search for weapons on suspects who were merely loitering in front of a property. He states that a magistrate would not have issued a warrant for a search based on the lack of probable cause stated by the detective, in which he cited the facts which led him to believe that the suspects might be armed, thus making him fear for his life. Justice Douglas offers text from Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 100-102, in which it is stated that a "strong reason to suspect" was needed in order to establish probable cause. It is his belief that the level of probable cause was not established when the detective initiated a search of the defendants, and subsequently seized firearms.

Holding of the Court

The technique of stopping and frisking suspects who peace officers believes might be potentially dangerous is within Constitutional boundaries, and does not violate any portion of the Fourth Amendment. Probable cause is established through the actions of the suspects, and is deemed worthy of a search if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to the personal safety of the officers.

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