What is a Terry Stop?

Misty Amber Brighton

A Terry stop is a procedure performed by law enforcement officers when there is reason to suspect a person has done something wrong, but there is not enough evidence for them to make an arrest. It is named after a landmark case decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1968. Sometimes known as a "stop and search", it can involve patting down an individual's clothing in an attempt to find a weapon or drugs. This act is sometimes hailed as a form of proactive policing because it can be used to prevent criminal acts from happening.

Areas that allow Terry stops often allow police officers to temporarily detain people for questioning.
Areas that allow Terry stops often allow police officers to temporarily detain people for questioning.

In many jurisdictions, police are unable to apprehend citizens without having a reasonable amount of evidence against them. This can often make it difficult to arrest people who are acting suspiciously. Areas that allow police to conduct a Terry stop make it possible for law enforcement officers to temporarily detain individuals for questioning or search their persons or belongings for contraband or weapons.

The police may stop an search a driver in some places when he or she is suspected of a crime.
The police may stop an search a driver in some places when he or she is suspected of a crime.

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Although many countries allow police to conduct a Terry stop, the act was first declared to be legal by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the landmark case Terry vs. Ohio, it was decided that law enforcement could briefly detain or search a private citizen if there was reason to believe he had committed or was about to commit a crime.

Since police have the authority to search a suspect during a Terry stop, it is sometimes referred to as a "stop and search". When doing so, the search must be limited to only what is reasonably necessary to discover weapons or illegal drugs. These limits can vary from one situation to the next, and are based on the totality of the circumstances at the time the act is performed.

A Terry stop is considered proactive policing. This is because an officer can often prevent someone from committing a crime while conducting the search. Many police academies give blocks of instruction on when it is appropriate to perform this procedure, and also teach police cadets how to do so without violating the rights of local citizens.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1968, thousands of Terry stops have been performed in many parts of the world. It can be a valuable tool in preventing crime. People who are considering a career in law enforcement may want to become familiar with this procedure in the event they may need to conduct one.

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