Terry v. Ohio (1968)

IRAC Summary

Issue: Whether a police officer’s stop-and-frisk of a suspect, carried out without a warrant or probable cause, violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Rule: The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has ruled that searches and seizures can be lawful if they are based on reasonable suspicion, a standard less than probable cause, and if the officer’s actions are justified at their inception and reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.

Application: In Terry v. Ohio, the Court analyzed whether Detective McFadden’s actions in stopping and frisking Terry and two other men were based on reasonable suspicion and whether the search was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified it. The officer observed the men acting suspiciously, which he interpreted as casing a store for a potential robbery. The Court found that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the men were about to engage in criminal activity, and his subsequent search for weapons was a necessary and protective measure.

Conclusion: The Supreme Court concluded that the stop-and-frisk in this instance did not violate the Fourth Amendment. It held that police officers could stop a person if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity, and they may perform a quick surface search for weapons if they have reasonable cause to believe the person is armed and dangerous, without violating the Fourth Amendment.

Detailed IRAC Outline


The more granular issue at hand is whether the specific and articulable facts, along with rational inferences from those facts, gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that Terry was engaged in criminal activity, thereby justifying Detective McFadden’s stop and frisk without a warrant or probable cause.


The Fourth Amendment’s standard for a lawful stop and frisk is established as “reasonable suspicion” for the stop and, separately, “reasonable cause” to believe the person is armed and dangerous for the frisk. The Supreme Court has recognized that an officer may conduct a limited search for weapons if, based on a totality of the circumstances, there is a belief that the subject poses a danger to the officer or others.


  1. Reasonable Suspicion for Stop:
    • Detective McFadden observed Terry and the other suspects pacing back and forth in front of a store window a total of 24 times and conferring with each other periodically.
    • This behavior was interpreted by the experienced officer as casing a job, a prelude to a robbery.
    • The officer approached the men for questioning, and based on their evasive answers, decided to perform a quick pat-down.
  2. Reasonable Cause for Frisk:
    • Given the nature of the suspected crime (robbery), there was a reasonable assumption that the suspects could be armed.
    • The officer limited his search to what was necessary to discover weapons to ensure his safety and that of nearby citizens.
    • During the pat-down, the officer felt a gun and subsequently retrieved it, confirming his suspicion.
  3. Scope of the Search:
    • The search was confined to an outer clothing pat-down until a weapon was felt, at which point it was permissible to reach inside the clothing to retrieve the weapon.


In Terry v. Ohio, the Court decided that the officer conducted a limited and reasonable search for weapons due to a justifiable concern for safety based on the suspects’ behavior, which warranted a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The search being limited to what was necessary to determine if the suspects were armed, and the subsequent discovery of the weapon supported the legality of the stop and frisk under the Fourth Amendment.

This set the precedent for the Terry stop, where police officers are allowed to detain a person briefly and conduct a frisk for weapons if they have a reasonable basis for suspecting criminal activity and believe the person may be armed and dangerous.

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