Focal Case Summary Terry v Ohio (1968)

Mariya Gluzman


In October 1963, a Cleveland plainclothes detective, Martin McFadden, observed three suspects casing a store for a stickup in the mid-afternoon. He approached the suspects, identified himself, asked their names, and patted them down. The officer felt a pistol on one of the men, John W. Terry, which he removed. Terry was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon.

During the trial, Terry’s attorney moved to suppress the weapon as evidence, arguing that Terry’s Fourth Amendment Right was violated in the search. The motion was denied by the trial judge, who upheld the officer’s actions on a stop and frisk theory.

Terry appealed the decision. However, the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the original decision, and the Ohio Supreme Court dismissed Terry’s appeal. Terry appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court found that the officer’s actions were proper and upheld Terry’s conviction in an 8-1 decision penned by Chief Justice Warren. The Court also detailed procedures that officers must follow in searching citizens and obtaining evidence admissible in court.

  1. The officers must reasonably conclude that a crime is about to be committed; and there is reason to fear their lives and the lives of others are in danger, because the suspect may be armed.
  2. After identifying themselves, officers can pat down a suspect and reach into a pocket only if they encounter an object that feels like a weapon.


The issue at the heart of this case is whether John Terry’s Fourth Amendment Rights were violated. The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Was Terry subjected to an “unreasonable search and seizure”? Chief Justice Warren concluded that he was not. Warren wrote that the requirement for a warrant did not apply in this case because Terry and his companions were detained by a law enforcement officer in the process of potentially criminal activity. The office in this case used his professional expertise to determine whether Terry’s behavior was suspicious and detained him to investigate. The warrant clause does not apply to on-the-street investigations by law enforcement officers.

There are  several important issues related to this case that were not addressed. For example, the court did not address the conditions under which a police officer may, reasonably, stop a person for questioning or a search. Nor was the question of whether a person can refuse to cooperate with police officers when stopped in this manner was discussed.

Since the Terry decision in 1968 there have been several important updates. The US Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers provides a comprehensive overview of these changes.

Public domain information includes some additional summary analysis.

Terry Stop and Frisks Doctrine and Practice | Constitution Annotated | | Library of Congress. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2022, from

Terry vs Ohio | Office of Justice Programs. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2022, from


In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court held that the search undertaken by the officer was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and that the weapons seized could be introduced into evidence against Terry. Attempting to focus narrowly on the facts of this particular case, the Court found that the officer acted on more than a “hunch” and that “a reasonably prudent man would have been warranted in believing [Terry] was armed and thus presented a threat to the officer’s safety while he was investigating his suspicious behavior.” The Court found that the searches undertaken were limited in scope and designed to protect the officer’s safety incident to the investigation.

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Terry v. Ohio. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from


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