Terry vs. Ohio: The Process and the Legacy


Modern criminal justice in the world is based on constitutional guarantees of individual rights. In all countries, the supremacy of constitutional provisions is proclaimed in cases of discrepancy between criminal procedure norms or other related legislation regulating the restriction of an individual’s rights, freedoms, and legitimate interests during the preliminary investigation of crimes. The study of the US legal literature by the authors concluded that the US Supreme Court devoted thousands of pages of text to interpret the requirements of the 53-word Amendment IV to the Constitution (“Amendment IV. Search and Seizure”). With such determination, the Supreme Court sought to balance the public interest in conducting searches and seizures to investigate illegal activities and the interest of individuals in freedom from government interference in their privacy. A prime example is the 1963 case of the search of three suspicious men: Terry v. Ohio had a significant impact on police practice against US citizens (“Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1”). This paper examines aspects of the case, its legacy, and its impact on future practice on these issues.


The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “the right of the people to be secure in person, home, papers, and property from unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrant shall be issued except for a good cause, confirmed by oath.” or a solemn declaration; the warrant must contain a detailed description of the place to be searched, the persons or objects to be seized” (“Amendment IV. Search and Seizure”). The practice of stopping, questioning, and searching people without good reason has been practiced by law enforcement officials for decades.

It intensified in the late 1960s: in response to citizen demonstrations against the Vietnam War, protests against campus conditions, the rise in crime, and violent clashes between the police and various self-proclaimed radical groups. Some states, such as New York, have enacted statutes that allow the police to stop any person reasonably suspected of participating in or engaging in criminal activity and conduct searches to protect life and limb (“New York Code Criminal Procedure Law 180 -ten”). In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended to the legislatures of the fifty states of the United States, given rising crime rates, that the police be given explicit authority to stop, search, and interrogate individuals based on a standard of less than sufficient reason. Civil rights activists objected to applying a lower standard of constitutional protection, as they believed it would be used to target the homeless, minorities, and political activists.


The Supreme Court resisted efforts to undermine the protections of the Fourth Amendment and held that a reasonable search under that rule required a warrant based on good cause or without a contract in cases where the police did not have time to obtain a warrant (“Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98”). In the famous case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court opened a new page in applying the Fourth Amendment and established a new basis for striking a balance between the need to fight crime and civil rights and liberties. The essence of this legal basis lies in the possibility for law enforcement agencies to make brief stops of individuals to investigate the circumstances of the case in the presence of reasonable suspicion. The Court explained that the need for interviews was essential to detect and investigate street crimes. These stops are different from arrests; they are for an investigation and do not constitute an interference with personal freedom. Therefore, they may be based on a lower reasonable suspicion standard rather than on sufficient grounds. Given the introduction of a new standard for restricting the individual’s rights, it is necessary to outline its main provisions developed in the Terry case (“Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1”). The case got to the Supreme Court due to the close attention of judicial practice to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and, in this case, the justified rightness of the human rights activist’s actions.

The circumstances of the said case indicate that the police officer noticed two men walking back and forth in front of a furniture store, looking into the shop window and constantly discussing something together. Police experience told this officer that this behavior is often a sign that the robbers are studying the situation and planning how best to rob the store. The policeman approached these people, asked them to introduce themselves, heard inarticulate muttering in response, felt the outside of their coats, and found a gun in his pocket. In its decision on the case, the Supreme Court upheld the actions of this police officer as being entirely consistent with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If the behavior of these two people did not formally give sufficient grounds for a full-fledged arrest or search, then it gave rise to reasonable suspicion to conduct a personal search – stop and frisk.


The Supreme Court established general guidelines in the Terry case for methodology in determining reasonable suspicion in future cases. It must be borne in mind that each situation in which the police find themselves has particularities, and circumstances that give rise to reasonable suspicions of the need for detention, and they often do not fall under the content of a specific legal norm. Therefore, the definition of reasonable suspicion determined in each case is evaluative.

The Terry standard has spread not only to the inspection of pedestrians but penetrated the practice of stopping and inspecting cars. The temporary stoppage of the driver and passengers continued for a reasonable period necessary for a routine check of offenses. The police officer has the right to interrogate persons and investigate the criminal activities of passengers within the duration of the stop. An officer may conduct a quick search of a passenger or driver if reasonable grounds are to believe that the passenger or driver is armed and currently dangerous (“Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323”). The case gave impetus to regulating issues related to the discovery of weapons and drugs during searches.


The Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio decided that American criminals have a long tradition of gun violence, killing, and injuring law enforcement officers. The Court thus held that, in the early stages of the investigation of a suspect, there is nothing to prevent a police officer from dispelling a reasonable fear for his own or the lives of others (“Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1”). He has the right to protect himself and others in the area by conducting a limited discreet search of suspects’ outer clothing to find weapons that could be used in an attack. These amendments from judicial practice, in part, untie the hands of the police, who can exceed their powers, contributing to cases of discrimination. However, above all, these rules were developed to balance the need to fight crime and protect the civil rights and freedoms of the individual. Likely, disputes on this issue are still possible in the future.

Works Cited

“Amendment IV. Search and Seizure”. Cornell Law School. Web.

“Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U. S. 323”. Justia, 2009. Web.

“Henry v. United States, 361 U. S. 98”. Justia, 1959. Web.

“New York Code Criminal Procedure Law 180-10”. Findlaw. Web.

“Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1”. Justia, 1968. Web.

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"Terry vs. Ohio: The Process and the Legacy." LawBirdie, 9 Apr. 2023, lawbirdie.com/terry-vs-ohio-the-process-and-the-legacy/.


LawBirdie. (2023) 'Terry vs. Ohio: The Process and the Legacy'. 9 April.


LawBirdie. 2023. "Terry vs. Ohio: The Process and the Legacy." April 9, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/terry-vs-ohio-the-process-and-the-legacy/.

1. LawBirdie. "Terry vs. Ohio: The Process and the Legacy." April 9, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/terry-vs-ohio-the-process-and-the-legacy/.


LawBirdie. "Terry vs. Ohio: The Process and the Legacy." April 9, 2023. https://lawbirdie.com/terry-vs-ohio-the-process-and-the-legacy/.