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Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

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

This case answers the following question:

When, if ever, are a brief detainment and a limited, pat-down search permissible without a warrant?

The Fourth Amendment prevents a search or seizure of an individual without a warrant or an establish exception to this warrant requirement. Id. at 9. However, in certain situations, law enforcement officers may need to briefly stop an individual (a seizure) for questioning and may need to pay down the individual (a search) to ensure he or she doesn’t have any weapons. Id. at 10-11. The petitioner in this matter was subject to such a seizure and search, commonly called a “stop and frisk.” Id. at 7. The petitioner and two others were briefly stopped and asked their names by an officer. Id. The officer feared the three men were armed, so he performed a pat-down on each of them. Id. This revealed that two of the men were armed with handguns, which led to these two being convicted of carrying concealed weapons. Id. It was clear that no warrant was issued and that no exception to the warrant requirement existed to justify the officer’s actions. Id. at 9. Still, the Court determined that a new exception should exist to cover these limited searches for weapons based on reasonable suspicion. Id. at 21-22.

The Court acknowledged that petitioner had a reasonable expectation of privacy as far as his body was concerned, i.e., that he won’t be frisked by a government official. Id. However, the Court discussed the competing concerns the existed in these circumstances. Id. at 9-10. First, police must deal with “rapidly unfolding and often dangerous situations on city streets” and must react quickly based upon limited information. Id. at 10. However, the Fourth Amendment promises a long-recognized and championed right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Id. at 11-12. Further, allowing too much discretion to officers will undoubtedly result in the quick swallowing of this right to privacy altogether. Id. at 12.

After weighing these competing interests, the Court decided to split the baby. Id. at 20. First, it disperses with any notion that a warrant must be required for a limited search, so long as the conduct is reasonable. Id. at 20-21. Reasonableness looks to two factors: the extent of the search and the justification the officer had to perform such actions. Id. at 21. Starting with the justification, the Court found that probable cause would be too demanding for the “necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer on the beat.” Id. at 20. Instead, the Court determined that an “officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts,” constitutes a reasonable suspicion that a stop-and-frisk are necessary. Id. at 21-22. Thus, “inarticulate hunches” are not enough to warrant action, but circumstances that would “warrant a man of reasonable caution” to act is enough. Id. at 22.

As for the amount of search activity that is permissible, the Court recognizes that the goal of such a frisk is officer safety, not gathering evidence of a crime. Id. at 24. On this basis, the Court held that this type of search for weapons must be “strictly circumscribed” to protect privacy interests guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Id. 25-26. This means the officer is very limited in what he or she may do: only that “which is necessary for the discovery of weapons which might be used to harm the officer.” Id. at 26. The Court found a pat down of outer clothing, with no intrusions into pockets was “confined…strictly to what was minimally necessary to learn whether the men were armed.” Id. at 30. If the officer feels a weapon, he may seize it; if he finds nothing, the activity is over and he can go no further. Id. at 29-30.