Stop and Frisk: Law, Statistics and Cases

Instructor: Richard Robertson

Richard has taught college Criminal Justice subjects and has a master's degree in criminal justice.

This lesson will discuss stop and frisk laws. We will review a landmark case and statistics about stop and frisk. At the end of the lesson, there will be a quiz to test your knowledge. Updated: 10/04/2021

Stop and Frisk

As you are walking home one bright sunny day, a police officer approaches you, tells you to put your hands up in the air and then runs his hands lightly over your body. This is what is known as a stop and frisk.

A stop and frisk is a when a police officer stops and questions an individual because he has a reasonable suspicion this individual may be involved in some form of criminal activity. If the officer feels the suspect may be armed, he can conduct a pat down of the person's outer clothing for a weapon.

What the heck is going on? Can he legally do this? Doesn't this violate the 4th Amendment rights against search and seizure?

Legality of Stop and Frisk

According to the Supreme Court of the United States ruling in the case of Terry v. Ohio (1968), it is legal and does not violate an individual's 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

This is the background on that ruling. In October 1963, veteran police officer Martin McFadden of the Cleveland Police Department observed two men acting peculiar as they walked back and forth in front of a jewelry store. As he watched the two men he noticed that they would stop in front of the store, look inside, and then move down the street. They did this a number of times, and McFadden became suspicious of their actions.

With over 39 years of law enforcement experience, Officer McFadden felt there may be criminal activity afoot. He approached the two men, identified himself as a police officer, and patted the two men down for weapons. In the process of patting them down, he found a pistol in the pocket of John Terry and a revolver in the pocket of the other.

Officer McFadden arrested both men and charged them with carrying concealed weapons. Consequently, they were both found guilty and sentenced to three years in jail. Terry appealed his conviction on the basis that his 4th Amendment rights were violate by an unlawful search and seizure. His appeal was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1968.

In an 8-1 decision the justices agreed with his conviction, saying that under the circumstances a search was reasonable and the weapon discovered during the pat down could be used as evidence against Terry.

In writing the opinion for the majority, Chief Justice Warren noted that in this particular case the stop was based on officer McFadden's training, experience, and knowledge and that he had reasonable suspicion the suspects may be been planning a robbery and may be armed. It was necessary for his protection and others to take measures to discover the true facts and neutralize the threat if any was discovered.

He went on to say that each future case will have to be decided on its own merits but when a police officer observes unusual conduct that leads him to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, he may make reasonable inquires, and if nothing dispels his initial suspicions, he is entitled to conduct a limited search of the outer clothing of the suspect for any weapons that might be used to assault him.

Stop and frisk had been used by police officer for years before the Terry v. Ohio case but this case legalized the practice and established guidelines to ensure an individual's 4th Amendment rights were not violated. These brief investigative stops became known as 'Terry stops' after the Supreme Court ruling.


There is very little statistical data available on the use of the stop and frisk procedure but the 1999 class action suit of Daniels, et al v. the City of New York sheds some light on the practice by the New York City Police Department.

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