On October 31, 1963, Cleveland police detective Martin McFadden saw two men (John W. Terry and Richard Chilton) standing on a street corner and acting suspiciously. One man would walk past a certain store window, stare in, walk on a short distance, turn back, stare in the store window again, and walk back to the other man and converse for a short period of time. The two men repeated this ritual alternately between five and six times apiece—in all, roughly a dozen trips. Each completion of the route was followed by a conference between the two on a corner, at one of which they were joined by a third man who left swiftly. Suspecting the two men of “casing” the store for a robbery, McFadden followed them and saw them rejoin the third man a couple of blocks away. The officer approached the three men, identified himself as a policeman, and asked their names. When they “mumbled something” in response, McFadden patted them down for weapons and discovered that Terry and Chilton were armed. He removed their guns and arrested them for carrying concealed weapons. When the trial court denied his motion to suppress, Terry pleaded not guilty, but the court adjudged him guilty and sentenced him to one to three years in prison.
The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, and the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case, claiming that no “substantial constitutional question” was involved. The U.S. Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case.
The Court assessed the reasonableness of the police activity here by comparing it to activity that would ordinarily require a warrant. “... in justifying the particular intrusion the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion."
“Would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or the search warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate?” Lesser evidence would mean that the Court would tolerate invasions on the privacy of citizens supported by mere hunches—a result the Court would not tolerate. Moreover,
And simple “‘good faith on the part of the arresting officer is not enough.’ . . . If subjective good faith alone were the test, the protections of the Fourth Amendment would evaporate, and the people would be ‘secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,’ only in the discretion of the police.” — quoting Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89 (1964)
These principles led the Court to conclude that the evidence found on Terry's person was properly admitted because the search was reasonable. The detective had observed Terry and his companions acting in a manner he took to be a preface to a stick-up. A reasonable person in the detective's position would have thought that Terry was armed and thus presented a threat to his safety while he was investigating the suspicious behavior he was observing. The events he had witnessed made it reasonable for him to believe that either Terry or his cohorts were armed. "The record evidences the tempered act of a policeman who in the course of an investigation had to make a quick decision as to how to protect himself and others from possible danger, and took limited steps to do so."
In situations such as the one presented in this case,
“The sole justification of the search ... is the protection of the police officer and others nearby, and it must therefore be confined in scope to an intrusion reasonably designed to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer.” (392 U.S. 1, at 29)
The police detective here limited his search to the outer surfaces of Terry's clothing. Thus, the search was reasonably related in scope to the concern for his own safety that justified the stop from the beginning. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the revolver found on Terry's person was properly admitted into evidence.