What Case Allows the Police to Stop and Frisk us Without a Warrant or Probable Cause?

By | April 2, 2013

It all starts with the case of Terry v. Ohio, the seminal case illustrative of the legal issues here. In Terry, a Cleveland police officer, Officer McFadden, observed three males standing outside a jewelry store in a suspicious manner. Officer McFadden’s intuition told him that something wasn’t right about the situation, even though it is not illegal to stand outside a jewelry store. He approached the three men and proceeded to ask them questions. He got nervous about his safety when the men were acting strangely, so he put them all up against the wall and patted down the outside of their clothing for weapons. As he frisked Mr. Terry, he felt a gun in Mr. Terry’s pocket and Mr. Terry was arrested.

When Mr. Terry was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, he argued that Officer McFadden had violated his Fourth Amendment Rights as Officer McFadden did not have a search warrant, and did not have Probable Cause either. The United States Supreme Court held that the stop and frisk by Officer McFadden did amount to a “search and seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

But the Court also found that this stop and frisk was of such a minor nature and so necessary for the protection of Officer McFadden that it was permissible for the officer to do what he did. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the police only have to have Reasonable Suspicion to conduct a “stop and frisk” (also known as an “investigatory stop” or from now on in this work a “Terry stop”).

The question for our purposes then is what constitutes Reasonable Suspicion in the context of drunk driving? The officer “Terry stopping” you must be able to come up with “specific articulable facts” indicating that the stop is reasonable because the power to stop a vehicle is a significant intrusion requiring justification as a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

The proscriptions of the Fourth Amendment impose a standard of reasonableness upon the exercise of discretion by government officials. “Thus, the permissibility of a particular law enforcement practice is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.” To justify a particular intrusion, the officer must demonstrate “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.”

Rather than involving a strict, inflexible standard, the determination of Reasonable Suspicion involves a consideration of “the totality of the circumstances.” Under this analysis, “both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability” are relevant to the court’s determination.