Stop-and-Frisk Part 1: The Terry Stop

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What is a Terry stop?

A Terry stop occurs when a police officer briefly detains a person based on a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.

The term “stop and frisk” (we’ll discuss the frisk in a separate post) comes from the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio. In this case, the court ruled that police officers don’t need a warrant to stop someone if they suspect criminal activity. However, officers can’t simply choose people on the street at random and order them to stop for investigatory questioning.

What’s the difference between a Terry stop and voluntary contact?

An officer cannot legally order you to stop for questioning without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. However, he may try to get you to voluntarily give him information. For example, he might ask for your ID, your consent to a search, or answers from you that may be incriminating. The policeman most likely will not tell you this, but you don’t have to consent to voluntary contact.

If the police officer has the legal authority to conduct a Terry stop, he will do so whether or not you agree, but he cannot legally force you to answer voluntary questions. Ask the officer if you are free to leave.

What’s the difference between a Terry stop and an arrest?

A Terry stop should not be confused with an arrest, which requires probable cause that the person committed a crime.

While a Terry stop is a brief detention to investigate suspected criminal activity, an arrest is for an extended period of time. A police officer might not say the words “you’re under arrest.” However, if a person is handcuffed, locked in the back of a police car, or otherwise restrained from leaving, the person is generally considered to be under arrest. A Terry stop is not an arrest, even though the person can’t leave during the investigatory questioning, because the stop is of short duration and is limited in its scope.

If you are involved in a Terry stop, it’s important to know your rights.

During a Terry stop, you have the right to remain silent and to tell the officer you are exercising that right. You have the right to refuse consent to a search of yourself, your car, or your house. You have the right to (calmly) leave if you are not under arrest. Finally, if the officer arrests you, you have a right to an attorney, and you should seek a criminal defense lawyer in your area.

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