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2.19: Chapter 20 - Stop and Frisk

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    This chapter concerns the law enforcement tactic known as “stop and frisk.” Although such conduct is less invasive than an arrest, the “stop” is nonetheless a seizure that must be “reasonable” to be lawful under the Fourth Amendment. The “frisk” is a search that also must be reasonable to be lawful.

    Our reading will review (1) the basic definition of “stop and frisk” and the Court’s justification for allowing it absent probable cause, (2) the difference between a stop and frisk and a full arrest (which requires probable cause), and (3) what police may do during a “Terry stop,” as these stops and frisks have come to be known.

    We begin with Terry v. Ohio, which sets forth the doctrine permitting “stop and frisk” in some circumstances and which has given its name to the practice.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    John W. Terry v. State of Ohio

    Decided June 10, 1968 – 392 U.S. 1

    Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This case presents serious questions concerning the role of the Fourth Amendment in the confrontation on the street between the citizen and the policeman investigating suspicious circumstances.

    Petitioner Terry was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to the statutorily prescribed term of one to three years in the penitentiary. Following the denial of a pretrial motion to suppress, the prosecution introduced in evidence two revolvers and a number of bullets seized from Terry and a codefendant, Richard Chilton, by Cleveland Police Detective Martin McFadden. At the hearing on the motion to suppress this evidence, Officer McFadden testified that while he was patrolling in plain clothes in downtown Cleveland at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon of October 31, 1963, his attention was attracted by two men, Chilton and Terry, standing on the corner of Huron Road and Euclid Avenue. He had never seen the two men before, and he was unable to say precisely what first drew his eye to them. However, he testified that he had been a policeman for 39 years and a detective for 35 and that he had been assigned to patrol this vicinity of downtown Cleveland for shoplifters and pickpockets for 30 years. He explained that he had developed routine habits of observation over the years and that he would “stand and watch people or walk and watch people at many intervals of the day.” He added: “Now, in this case when I looked over they didn’t look right to me at the time.”

    His interest aroused, Officer McFadden took up a post of observation in the entrance to a store 300 to 400 feet away from the two men. “I get more purpose to watch them when I seen their movements,” he testified. He saw one of the men leave the other one and walk southwest on Huron Road, past some stores. The man paused for a moment and looked in a store window, then walked on a short distance, turned around and walked back toward the corner, pausing once again to look in the same store window. He rejoined his companion at the corner, and the two conferred briefly. Then the second man went through the same series of motions, strolling down Huron Road, looking in the same window, walking on a short distance, turning back, peering in the store window again, and returning to confer with the first man at the corner. The two men repeated this ritual alternately between five and six times apiece—in all, roughly a dozen trips. At one point, while the two were standing together on the corner, a third man approached them and engaged them briefly in conversation. This man then left the two others and walked west on Euclid Avenue. Chilton and Terry resumed their measured pacing, peering and conferring. After this had gone on for 10 to 12 minutes, the two men walked off together, heading west on Euclid Avenue, following the path taken earlier by the third man.

    By this time Officer McFadden had become thoroughly suspicious. He testified that after observing their elaborately casual and oft-repeated reconnaissance of the store window on Huron Road, he suspected the two men of “casing a job, a stick-up,” and that he considered it his duty as a police officer to investigate further. He added that he feared “they may have a gun.” Thus, Officer McFadden followed Chilton and Terry and saw them stop in front of Zucker’s store to talk to the same man who had conferred with them earlier on the street corner. Deciding that the situation was ripe for direct action, Officer McFadden approached the three men, identified himself as a police officer and asked for their names. At this point his knowledge was confined to what he had observed. He was not acquainted with any of the three men by name or by sight, and he had received no information concerning them from any other source. When the men “mumbled something” in response to his inquiries, Officer McFadden grabbed petitioner Terry, spun him around so that they were facing the other two, with Terry between McFadden and the others, and patted down the outside of his clothing. In the left breast pocket of Terry’s overcoat Officer McFadden felt a pistol. He reached inside the overcoat pocket, but was unable to remove the gun. At this point, keeping Terry between himself and the others, the officer ordered all three men to enter Zucker’s store. As they went in, he removed Terry’s overcoat completely, removed a .38-caliber revolver from the pocket and ordered all three men to face the wall with their hands raised. Officer McFadden proceeded to pat down the outer clothing of Chilton and the third man, Katz. He discovered another revolver in the outer pocket of Chilton’s overcoat, but no weapons were found on Katz. The officer testified that he only patted the men down to see whether they had weapons, and that he did not put his hands beneath the outer garments of either Terry or Chilton until he felt their guns. So far as appears from the record, he never placed his hands beneath Katz’ outer garments. Officer McFadden seized Chilton’s gun, asked the proprietor of the store to call a police wagon, and took all three men to the station, where Chilton and Terry were formally charged with carrying concealed weapons.

    On the motion to suppress the guns the prosecution took the position that they had been seized following a search incident to a lawful arrest. The trial court rejected this theory, stating that it “would be stretching the facts beyond reasonable comprehension” to find that Officer McFadden had had probable cause to arrest the men before he patted them down for weapons. However, the court denied the defendants’ motion on the ground that Officer McFadden, on the basis of his experience, “had reasonable cause to believe … that the defendants were conducting themselves suspiciously, and some interrogation should be made of their action.” Purely for his own protection, the court held, the officer had the right to pat down the outer clothing of these men, who he had reasonable cause to believe might be armed. The court distinguished between an investigatory “stop” and an arrest, and between a “frisk” of the outer clothing for weapons and a full-blown search for evidence of crime. The frisk, it held, was essential to the proper performance of the officer’s investigatory duties, for without it “the answer to the police officer may be a bullet, and a loaded pistol discovered during the frisk is admissible.”

    After the court denied their motion to suppress, Chilton and Terry waived jury trial and pleaded not guilty. The court adjudged them guilty, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Judicial District, Cuyahoga County, affirmed. The Supreme Court of Ohio dismissed their appeal. We granted certiorari. We affirm the conviction.


    The question is whether in all the circumstances of this on-the-street encounter, [Terry’s] right to personal security was violated by an unreasonable search and seizure.

    We would be less than candid if we did not acknowledge that this question thrusts to the fore difficult and troublesome issues regarding a sensitive area of police activity—issues which have never before been squarely presented to this Court. Reflective of the tensions involved are the practical and constitutional arguments pressed with great vigor on both sides of the public debate over the power of the police to “stop and frisk”—as it is sometimes euphemistically termed—suspicious persons.

    On the one hand, it is frequently argued that in dealing with the rapidly unfolding and often dangerous situations on city streets the police are in need of an escalating set of flexible responses, graduated in relation to the amount of information they possess. For this purpose it is urged that distinctions should be made between a “stop” and an “arrest” (or a “seizure” of a person), and between a “frisk” and a “search.”

    On the other side the argument is made that the authority of the police must be strictly circumscribed by the law of arrest and search. It is contended with some force that there is not—and cannot be—a variety of police activity which does not depend solely upon the voluntary cooperation of the citizen and yet which stops short of an arrest based upon probable cause to make such an arrest.

    In this context we approach the issues in this case mindful of the limitations of the judicial function in controlling the myriad daily situations in which policemen and citizens confront each other on the street. No judicial opinion can comprehend the protean variety of the street encounter, and we can only judge the facts of the case before us. Nothing we say today is to be taken as indicating approval of police conduct outside the legitimate investigative sphere. Under our decision, courts still retain their traditional responsibility to guard against police conduct which is over-bearing or harassing, or which trenches upon personal security without the objective evidentiary justification which the Constitution requires.

    Having thus roughly sketched the perimeters of the constitutional debate over the limits on police investigative conduct in general and the background against which this case presents itself, we turn our attention to the quite narrow question posed by the facts before us: whether it is always unreasonable for a policeman to seize a person and subject him to a limited search for weapons unless there is probable cause for an arrest.


    Our first task is to establish at what point in this encounter the Fourth Amendment becomes relevant. That is, we must decide whether and when Officer McFadden “seized” Terry and whether and when he conducted a “search.” There is some suggestion in the use of such terms as “stop” and “frisk” that such police conduct is outside the purview of the Fourth Amendment because neither action rises to the level of a “search” or “seizure” within the meaning of the Constitution. We emphatically reject this notion. It is quite plain that the Fourth Amendment governs “seizures” of the person which do not eventuate in a trip to the station house and prosecution for crime—“arrests” in traditional terminology. It must be recognized that whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has “seized” that person. And it is nothing less than sheer torture of the English language to suggest that a careful exploration of the outer surfaces of a person’s clothing all over his or her body in an attempt to find weapons is not a “search.” Moreover, it is simply fantastic to urge that such a procedure performed in public by a policeman while the citizen stands helpless, perhaps facing a wall with his hands raised, is a “petty indignity.” It is a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment, and it is not to be undertaken lightly.

    The danger in the logic which proceeds upon distinctions between a “stop” and an “arrest,” or “seizure” of the person, and between a “frisk” and a “search” is twofold. It seeks to isolate from constitutional scrutiny the initial stages of the contact between the policeman and the citizen. And … it obscures the utility of limitations upon the scope, as well as the initiation, of police action as a means of constitutional regulation. This Court has held in the past that a search which is reasonable at its inception may violate the Fourth Amendment by virtue of its intolerable intensity and scope. The scope of the search must be “strictly tied to and justified by” the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible.

    The distinctions of classical “stop-and-frisk” theory thus serve to divert attention from the central inquiry under the Fourth Amendment—the reasonableness in all the circumstances of the particular governmental invasion of a citizen’s personal security. “Search” and “seizure” are not talismans. We therefore reject the notions that the Fourth Amendment does not come into play at all as a limitation upon police conduct if the officers stop short of something called a “technical arrest” or a “full-blown search.”

    In this case there can be no question, then, that Officer McFadden “seized” petitioner and subjected him to a “search” when he took hold of him and patted down the outer surfaces of his clothing. We must decide whether at that point it was reasonable for Officer McFadden to have interfered with petitioner’s personal security as he did. And in determining whether the seizure and search were “unreasonable” our inquiry is a dual one—whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception, and whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.


    If this case involved police conduct subject to the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment, we would have to ascertain whether “probable cause” existed to justify the search and seizure which took place. However, that is not the case. [W]e deal here with an entire rubric of police conduct—necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer on the beat—which historically has not been, and as a practical matter could not be, subjected to the warrant procedure. Instead, the conduct involved in this case must be tested by the Fourth Amendment’s general proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.

    In order to assess the reasonableness of Officer McFadden’s conduct as a general proposition, it is necessary “first to focus upon the governmental interest which allegedly justifies official intrusion upon the constitutionally protected interests of the private citizen,” for there is “no ready test for determining reasonableness other than by balancing the need to search (or seize) against the invasion which the search (or seizure) entails.” And 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 that intrusion. [I]t is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard: 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? 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.”

    Applying these principles to this case, we consider first the nature and extent of the governmental interests involved. One general interest is of course that of effective crime prevention and detection. It was this legitimate investigative function Officer McFadden was discharging when he decided to approach petitioner and his companions. He had observed Terry, Chilton, and Katz go through a series of acts, each of them perhaps innocent in itself, but which taken together warranted further investigation.

    The crux of this case, however, is not the propriety of Officer McFadden’s taking steps to investigate petitioner’s suspicious behavior, but rather, whether there was justification for McFadden’s invasion of Terry’s personal security by searching him for weapons in the course of that investigation. We are now concerned with more than the governmental interest in investigating crime; in addition, there is the more immediate interest of the police officer in taking steps to assure himself that the person with whom he is dealing is not armed with a weapon that could unexpectedly and fatally be used against him. Certainly it would be unreasonable to require that police officers take unnecessary risks in the performance of their duties.

    [W]e cannot blind ourselves to the need for law enforcement officers to protect themselves and other prospective victims of violence in situations where they may lack probable cause for an arrest. When an officer is justified in believing that the individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating at close range is armed and presently dangerous to the officer or to others, it would appear to be clearly unreasonable to deny the officer the power to take necessary measures to determine whether the person is in fact carrying a weapon and to neutralize the threat of physical harm.

    We must still consider, however, the nature and quality of the intrusion on individual rights which must be accepted if police officers are to be conceded the right to search for weapons in situations where probable cause to arrest for crime is lacking. Even a limited search of the outer clothing for weapons constitutes a severe, though brief, intrusion upon cherished personal security, and it must surely be an annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating experience.

    Our evaluation of the proper balance that has to be struck in this type of case leads us to conclude that there must be a narrowly drawn authority to permit a reasonable search for weapons for the protection of the police officer, where he has reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual, regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest the individual for a crime. The officer need not be absolutely certain that the individual is armed; the issue is whether a reasonably prudent man in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger. And in determining whether the officer acted reasonably in such circumstances, due weight must be given, not to his inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or “hunch,” but to the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience.


    We must now examine the conduct of Officer McFadden in this case to determine whether his search and seizure of petitioner were reasonable, both at their inception and as conducted. He had observed Terry, together with Chilton and another man, acting in a manner he took to be preface to a “stick-up.” We think on the facts and circumstances Officer McFadden detailed before the trial judge a reasonably prudent man would have been warranted in believing petitioner was armed and thus presented a threat to the officer’s safety while he was investigating his suspicious behavior. The actions of Terry and Chilton were consistent with McFadden’s hypothesis that these men were contemplating a daylight robbery—which, it is reasonable to assume, would be likely to involve the use of weapons—and nothing in their conduct from the time he first noticed them until the time he confronted them and identified himself as a police officer gave him sufficient reason to negate that hypothesis. Thus, when Officer McFadden approached the three men gathered before the display window at Zucker’s store he had observed enough to make it quite reasonable to fear that they were armed; and nothing in their response to his hailing them, identifying himself as a police officer, and asking their names served to dispel that reasonable belief. We cannot say his decision at that point to seize Terry and pat his clothing for weapons was the product of a volatile or inventive imagination, or was undertaken simply as an act of harassment; 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.

    We need not develop at length in this case, however, the limitations which the Fourth Amendment places upon a protective seizure and search for weapons. These limitations will have to be developed in the concrete factual circumstances of individual cases. Suffice it to note that such a search, unlike a search without a warrant incident to a lawful arrest, is not justified by any need to prevent the disappearance or destruction of evidence of crime. The sole justification of the search in the present situation 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.

    The scope of the search in this case presents no serious problem in light of these standards. Officer McFadden patted down the outer clothing of petitioner and his two companions. He did not place his hands in their pockets or under the outer surface of their garments until he had felt weapons, and then he merely reached for and removed the guns. He never did invade Katz’ person beyond the outer surfaces of his clothes, since he discovered nothing in his patdown which might have been a weapon. Officer McFadden confined his search strictly to what was minimally necessary to learn whether the men were armed and to disarm them once he discovered the weapons. He did not conduct a general exploratory search for whatever evidence of criminal activity he might find.


    We conclude that the revolver seized from Terry was properly admitted in evidence against him. At the time he seized petitioner and searched him for weapons, Officer McFadden had reasonable grounds to believe that petitioner was armed and dangerous, and it was necessary for the protection of himself and others to take swift measures to discover the true facts and neutralize the threat of harm if it materialized. The policeman carefully restricted his search to what was appropriate to the discovery of the particular items which he sought. Each case of this sort will, of course, have to be decided on its own facts. We merely hold today that where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous, where in the course of investigating this behavior he identifies himself as a policeman and makes reasonable inquiries, and where nothing in the initial stages of the encounter serves to dispel his reasonable fear for his own or others’ safety, he is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him. Such a search is a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, and any weapons seized may properly be introduced in evidence against the person from whom they were taken.

    Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, dissenting.

    The opinion of the Court disclaims the existence of “probable cause.” If loitering were in issue and that was the offense charged, there would be “probable cause” shown. But the crime here is carrying concealed weapons; and there is no basis for concluding that the officer had “probable cause” for believing that that crime was being committed. Had a warrant been sought, a magistrate would, therefore, have been unauthorized to issue one, for he can act only if there is a showing of “probable cause.” We hold today that the police have greater authority to make a “seizure” and conduct a “search” than a judge has to authorize such action. We have said precisely the opposite over and over again.

    [P]olice officers up to today have been permitted to effect arrests or searches without warrants only when the facts within their personal knowledge would satisfy the constitutional standard of probable cause. At the time of their “seizure” without a warrant they must possess facts concerning the person arrested that would have satisfied a magistrate that “probable cause” was indeed present. The term “probable cause” rings a bell of certainty that is not sounded by phrases such as “reasonable suspicion.”

    To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.

    There have been powerful hydraulic pressures throughout our history that bear heavily on the Court to water down constitutional guarantees and give the police the upper hand. That hydraulic pressure has probably never been greater than it is today.

    Yet if the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can “seize” and “search” him in their discretion, we enter a new regime. The decision to enter it should be made only after a full debate by the people of this country.

    * * *

    Selections from opinions in the next case, United States v. Place, were included in the assignment for Chapter 5. In that chapter, the case was presented to illustrate that dog sniffs in public places—in and of themselves—do not constitute searches. In this chapter, we return to the case to study what constitutes a permissible seizure of “effects.”

    Supreme Court of the United States

    United States v. Raymond J. Place

    Decided June 20, 1983 – 462 U.S. 696

    Justice O’CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This case presents the issue whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits law enforcement authorities from temporarily detaining personal luggage for exposure to a trained narcotics detection dog on the basis of reasonable suspicion that the luggage contains narcotics. Given the enforcement problems associated with the detection of narcotics trafficking and the minimal intrusion that a properly limited detention would entail, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit such a detention. On the facts of this case, however, we hold that the police conduct exceeded the bounds of a permissible investigative detention of the luggage.


    Respondent Raymond J. Place’s behavior aroused the suspicions of law enforcement officers as he waited in line at the Miami International Airport to purchase a ticket to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. As Place proceeded to the gate for his flight, the agents approached him and requested his airline ticket and some identification. Place complied with the request and consented to a search of the two suitcases he had checked. Because his flight was about to depart, however, the agents decided not to search the luggage.

    Prompted by Place’s parting remark that he had recognized that they were police, the agents inspected the address tags on the checked luggage and noted discrepancies in the two street addresses. Further investigation revealed that neither address existed and that the telephone number Place had given the airline belonged to a third address on the same street. On the basis of their encounter with Place and this information, the Miami agents called Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) authorities in New York to relay their information about Place.

    Two DEA agents waited for Place at the arrival gate at LaGuardia Airport in New York. There again, his behavior aroused the suspicion of the agents. After he had claimed his two bags and called a limousine, the agents decided to approach him. They identified themselves as federal narcotics agents, to which Place responded that he knew they were “cops” and had spotted them as soon as he had deplaned. One of the agents informed Place that, based on their own observations and information obtained from the Miami authorities, they believed that he might be carrying narcotics. After identifying the bags as belonging to him, Place stated that a number of police at the Miami Airport had surrounded him and searched his baggage. The agents responded that their information was to the contrary. The agents requested and received identification from Place—a New Jersey driver’s license, on which the agents later ran a computer check that disclosed no offenses, and his airline ticket receipt. When Place refused to consent to a search of his luggage, one of the agents told him that they were going to take the luggage to a federal judge to try to obtain a search warrant and that Place was free to accompany them. Place declined, but obtained from one of the agents telephone numbers at which the agents could be reached.

    The agents then took the bags to Kennedy Airport,1 where they subjected the bags to a “sniff test” by a trained narcotics detection dog. The dog reacted positively to the smaller of the two bags but ambiguously to the larger bag. Approximately 90 minutes had elapsed since the seizure of respondent’s luggage. Because it was late on a Friday afternoon, the agents retained the luggage until Monday morning, when they secured a search warrant from a magistrate for the smaller bag. Upon opening that bag, the agents discovered 1,125 grams of cocaine.

    Place was indicted for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. In the District Court, Place moved to suppress the contents of the luggage seized from him at LaGuardia Airport. The District Court denied the motion. Place pleaded guilty to the possession charge, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. On appeal of the conviction, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. We granted certiorari and now affirm.


    In the ordinary case, the Court has viewed a seizure of personal property as per se unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment unless it is accomplished pursuant to a judicial warrant issued upon probable cause and particularly describing the items to be seized. Where law enforcement authorities have probable cause to believe that a container holds contraband or evidence of a crime, but have not secured a warrant, the Court has interpreted the Amendment to permit seizure of the property, pending issuance of a warrant to examine its contents, if the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.

    In this case, the Government asks us to recognize the reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment of warrantless seizures of personal luggage from the custody of the owner on the basis of less than probable cause, for the purpose of pursuing a limited course of investigation, short of opening the luggage, that would quickly confirm or dispel the authorities’ suspicion. Specifically, we are asked to apply the principles of Terry v. Ohio to permit such seizures on the basis of reasonable, articulable suspicion, premised on objective facts, that the luggage contains contraband or evidence of a crime. In our view, such application is appropriate.

    The exception to the probable-cause requirement for limited seizures of the person recognized in Terry and its progeny rests on a balancing of the competing interests to determine the reasonableness of the type of seizure involved within the meaning of “the Fourth Amendment’s general proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.” We must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion. When the nature and extent of the detention are minimally intrusive of the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests, the opposing law enforcement interests can support a seizure based on less than probable cause.

    We examine first the governmental interest offered as a justification for a brief seizure of luggage from the suspect’s custody for the purpose of pursuing a limited course of investigation. The Government contends that, where the authorities possess specific and articulable facts warranting a reasonable belief that a traveler’s luggage contains narcotics, the governmental interest in seizing the luggage briefly to pursue further investigation is substantial. We agree.

    Against this strong governmental interest, we must weigh the nature and extent of the intrusion upon the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights when the police briefly detain luggage for limited investigative purposes. On this point, respondent Place urges that the rationale for a Terry stop of the person is wholly inapplicable to investigative detentions of personality. Specifically, the Terry exception to the probable-cause requirement is premised on the notion that a Terry-type stop of the person is substantially less intrusive of a person’s liberty interests than a formal arrest. In the property context, however, Place urges, there are no degrees of intrusion. Once the owner’s property is seized, the dispossession is absolute.

    We disagree. The intrusion on possessory interests occasioned by a seizure of one’s personal effects can vary both in its nature and extent. The seizure may be made after the owner has relinquished control of the property to a third party or, as here, from the immediate custody and control of the owner. Moreover, the police may confine their investigation to an on-the-spot inquiry—for example, immediate exposure of the luggage to a trained narcotics detection dog—or transport the property to another location. Given the fact that seizures of property can vary in intrusiveness, some brief detentions of personal effects may be so minimally intrusive of Fourth Amendment interests that strong countervailing governmental interests will justify a seizure based only on specific articulable facts that the property contains contraband or evidence of a crime.

    In sum, we conclude that when an officer’s observations lead him reasonably to believe that a traveler is carrying luggage that contains narcotics, the principles of Terry and its progeny would permit the officer to detain the luggage briefly to investigate the circumstances that aroused his suspicion, provided that the investigative detention is properly limited in scope.

    The purpose for which respondent’s luggage was seized, of course, was to arrange its exposure to a narcotics detection dog. Obviously, if this investigative procedure is itself a search requiring probable cause, the initial seizure of respondent’s luggage for the purpose of subjecting it to the sniff test—no matter how brief—could not be justified on less than probable cause.

    [The Court then held that “exposure of respondent’s luggage, which was located in a public place, to a trained canine—did not constitute a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”]


    We [next] examine whether the agents’ conduct in this case was such as to place the seizure within the general rule requiring probable cause for a seizure or within Terry’s exception to that rule.

    The precise type of detention we confront here is seizure of personal luggage from the immediate possession of the suspect for the purpose of arranging exposure to a narcotics detection dog. Particularly in the case of detention of luggage within the traveler’s immediate possession, the police conduct intrudes on both the suspect’s possessory interest in his luggage as well as his liberty interest in proceeding with his itinerary. The person whose luggage is detained is technically still free to continue his travels or carry out other personal activities pending release of the luggage. Moreover, he is not subjected to the coercive atmosphere of a custodial confinement or to the public indignity of being personally detained. Nevertheless, such a seizure can effectively restrain the person since he is subjected to the possible disruption of his travel plans in order to remain with his luggage or to arrange for its return. Therefore, when the police seize luggage from the suspect’s custody, we think the limitations applicable to investigative detentions of the person should define the permissible scope of an investigative detention of the person’s luggage on less than probable cause. Under this standard, it is clear that the police conduct here exceeded the permissible limits of a Terry-type investigative stop.

    The length of the detention of respondent’s luggage alone precludes the conclusion that the seizure was reasonable in the absence of probable cause. [I]n assessing the effect of the length of the detention, we take into account whether the police diligently pursue their investigation. We note that here the New York agents knew the time of Place’s scheduled arrival at LaGuardia, had ample time to arrange for their additional investigation at that location, and thereby could have minimized the intrusion on respondent’s Fourth Amendment interests. Thus, although we decline to adopt any outside time limitation for a permissible Terry stop, we have never approved a seizure of the person for the prolonged 90-minute period involved here and cannot do so on the facts presented by this case.

    Although the 90-minute detention of respondent’s luggage is sufficient to render the seizure unreasonable, the violation was exacerbated by the failure of the agents to accurately inform respondent of the place to which they were transporting his luggage, of the length of time he might be dispossessed, and of what arrangements would be made for return of the luggage if the investigation dispelled the suspicion. In short, we hold that the detention of respondent’s luggage in this case went beyond the narrow authority possessed by police to detain briefly luggage reasonably suspected to contain narcotics.


    We conclude that, under all of the circumstances of this case, the seizure of respondent’s luggage was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Consequently, the evidence obtained from the subsequent search of his luggage was inadmissible, and Place’s conviction must be reversed. The judgment of the Court of Appeals, accordingly, is affirmed.

    * * *

    The next case sheds further light on the permissible scope of investigatory stops based on reasonable suspicion. In particular, it helps to illustrate how long a person may be detained for a “Terry stop.”

    Supreme Court of the United States

    United States v. William Harris Sharpe

    Decided March 20, 1985 – 470 U.S. 675

    Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

    We granted certiorari to decide whether an individual reasonably suspected of engaging in criminal activity may be detained for a period of 20 minutes, when the detention is necessary for law enforcement officers to conduct a limited investigation of the suspected criminal activity.


    On the morning of June 9, 1978, Agent Cooke of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was on patrol in an unmarked vehicle on a coastal road near Sunset Beach, North Carolina, an area under surveillance for suspected drug trafficking. At approximately 6:30 a.m., Cooke noticed a blue pickup truck with an attached camper shell traveling on the highway in tandem with a blue Pontiac Bonneville. Respondent Savage was driving the pickup, and respondent Sharpe was driving the Pontiac. The Pontiac also carried a passenger, Davis, the charges against whom were later dropped. Observing that the truck was riding low in the rear and that the camper did not bounce or sway appreciably when the truck drove over bumps or around curves, Agent Cooke concluded that it was heavily loaded. A quilted material covered the rear and side windows of the camper.

    Cooke’s suspicions were sufficiently aroused to follow the two vehicles for approximately 20 miles as they proceeded south into South Carolina. He then decided to make an “investigative stop” and radioed the State Highway Patrol for assistance. Officer Thrasher, driving a marked patrol car, responded to the call. Almost immediately after Thrasher caught up with the procession, the Pontiac and the pickup turned off the highway and onto a campground road. Cooke and Thrasher followed the two vehicles as the latter drove along the road at 55 to 60 miles an hour, exceeding the speed limit of 35 miles an hour. The road eventually looped back to the highway, onto which Savage and Sharpe turned and continued to drive south.

    At this point, all four vehicles were in the middle lane of the three right-hand lanes of the highway. Agent Cooke asked Officer Thrasher to signal both vehicles to stop. Thrasher pulled alongside the Pontiac, which was in the lead, turned on his flashing light, and motioned for the driver of the Pontiac to stop. As Sharpe moved the Pontiac into the right lane, the pickup truck cut between the Pontiac and Thrasher’s patrol car, nearly hitting the patrol car, and continued down the highway. Thrasher pursued the truck while Cooke pulled up behind the Pontiac.

    Cooke approached the Pontiac and identified himself. He requested identification, and Sharpe produced a Georgia driver’s license bearing the name of Raymond J. Pavlovich. Cooke then attempted to radio Thrasher to determine whether he had been successful in stopping the pickup truck, but he was unable to make contact for several minutes, apparently because Thrasher was not in his patrol car. Cooke radioed the local police for assistance, and two officers from the Myrtle Beach Police Department arrived about 10 minutes later. Asking the two officers to “maintain the situation,” Cooke left to join Thrasher.

    In the meantime, Thrasher had stopped the pickup truck about one-half mile down the road. After stopping the truck, Thrasher had approached it with his revolver drawn, ordered the driver, Savage, to get out and assume a “spread eagled” position against the side of the truck, and patted him down. Thrasher then holstered his gun and asked Savage for his driver’s license and the truck’s vehicle registration. Savage produced his own Florida driver’s license and a bill of sale for the truck bearing the name of Pavlovich. In response to questions from Thrasher concerning the ownership of the truck, Savage said that the truck belonged to a friend and that he was taking it to have its shock absorbers repaired. When Thrasher told Savage that he would be held until the arrival of Cooke, whom Thrasher identified as a DEA agent, Savage became nervous, said that he wanted to leave, and requested the return of his driver’s license. Thrasher replied that Savage was not free to leave at that time.

    Agent Cooke arrived at the scene approximately 15 minutes after the truck had been stopped. Thrasher handed Cooke Savage’s license and the bill of sale for the truck; Cooke noted that the bill of sale bore the same name as Sharpe’s license. Cooke identified himself to Savage as a DEA agent and said that he thought the truck was loaded with marihuana. Cooke twice sought permission to search the camper, but Savage declined to give it, explaining that he was not the owner of the truck. Cooke then stepped on the rear of the truck and, observing that it did not sink any lower, confirmed his suspicion that it was probably overloaded. He put his nose against the rear window, which was covered from the inside, and reported that he could smell marihuana. Without seeking Savage’s permission, Cooke removed the keys from the ignition, opened the rear of the camper, and observed a large number of burlap-wrapped bales resembling bales of marihuana that Cooke had seen in previous investigations. Agent Cooke then placed Savage under arrest and left him with Thrasher.

    Cooke returned to the Pontiac and arrested Sharpe and Davis. Approximately 30 to 40 minutes had elapsed between the time Cooke stopped the Pontiac and the time he returned to arrest Sharpe and Davis. Cooke assembled the various parties and vehicles and led them to the Myrtle Beach police station. That evening, DEA agents took the truck to the Federal Building in Charleston, South Carolina. Several days later, Cooke supervised the unloading of the truck, which contained 43 bales weighing a total of 2,629 pounds. Acting without a search warrant, Cooke had eight randomly selected bales opened and sampled. Chemical tests showed that the samples were marihuana.


    Sharpe and Savage were charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute it. The United States District Court for the District of South Carolina denied respondents’ motion to suppress the contraband, and respondents were convicted. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the convictions. We granted the petition, vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remanded the case for further consideration. On remand, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals again reversed the convictions. We granted certiorari and we reverse.


    The only issue in this case [] is whether it was reasonable under the circumstances facing Agent Cooke and Officer Thrasher to detain Savage, whose vehicle contained the challenged evidence, for approximately 20 minutes.2 We conclude that the detention of Savage clearly meets the Fourth Amendment’s standard of reasonableness.

    Obviously, if an investigative stop continues indefinitely, at some point it can no longer be justified as an investigative stop. But our cases impose no rigid time limitation on Terry stops. While it is clear that “the brevity of the invasion of the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests is an important factor in determining whether the seizure is so minimally intrusive as to be justifiable on reasonable suspicion,” we have emphasized the need to consider the law enforcement purposes to be served by the stop as well as the time reasonably needed to effectuate those purposes. Much as a “bright line” rule would be desirable, in evaluating whether an investigative detention is unreasonable, common sense and ordinary human experience must govern over rigid criteria.

    In assessing whether a detention is too long in duration to be justified as an investigative stop, we consider it appropriate to examine whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant. A court making this assessment should take care to consider whether the police are acting in a swiftly developing situation, and in such cases the court should not indulge in unrealistic second-guessing. A creative judge engaged in post hoc evaluation of police conduct can almost always imagine some alternative means by which the objectives of the police might have been accomplished. But “[t]he fact that the protection of the public might, in the abstract, have been accomplished by ‘less intrusive’ means does not, itself, render the search unreasonable.” The question is not simply whether some other alternative was available, but whether the police acted unreasonably in failing to recognize or to pursue it.

    We readily conclude that, given the circumstances facing him, Agent Cooke pursued his investigation in a diligent and reasonable manner. During most of Savage’s 20-minute detention, Cooke was attempting to contact Thrasher and enlisting the help of the local police who remained with Sharpe while Cooke left to pursue Officer Thrasher and the pickup. Once Cooke reached Officer Thrasher and Savage, he proceeded expeditiously: within the space of a few minutes, he examined Savage’s driver’s license and the truck’s bill of sale, requested (and was denied) permission to search the truck, stepped on the rear bumper and noted that the truck did not move, confirming his suspicion that it was probably overloaded. He then detected the odor of marihuana.

    Clearly this case does not involve any delay unnecessary to the legitimate investigation of the law enforcement officers. Respondents presented no evidence that the officers were dilatory in their investigation. The delay in this case was attributable almost entirely to the evasive actions of Savage, who sought to elude the police as Sharpe moved his Pontiac to the side of the road. Except for Savage’s maneuvers, only a short and certainly permissible pre-arrest detention would likely have taken place. The somewhat longer detention was simply the result of a “graduate[d] … respons[e] to the demands of [the] particular situation.”

    We reject the contention that a 20-minute stop is unreasonable when the police have acted diligently and a suspect’s actions contribute to the added delay about which he complains. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    The Court decided in Illinois v. Caballes (Chapter 5) that when a motorist is lawfully held for a traffic stop, police use of drug-sniffing dogs to investigate a vehicle is not a “search.” In Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), the Court considered whether police may lengthen a traffic stop for the purpose of conducting such a dog sniff.

    A police officer pulled over Dennys Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder of a Nebraska state highway, which is unlawful. During the stop, the officer asked Rodriguez why he had driven on the shoulder and, after receiving an answer, “gathered Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.” He then ran “a records check on Rodriguez” before returning to question Rodriguez and his passenger. Next, the officer returned to his car again, ran a records check on the passenger, and “began writing a warning ticket for Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder of the road.” Rodriguez made no objection to any of this conduct.

    After writing the warning ticket and presenting it to Rodriguez (along with other documents the officer had collected during the stop), the officer asked Rodriguez for permission to walk a drug dog around Rodriguez’s vehicle. Rodriguez declined, and the officer ordered Rodriguez to stay put, which he did. The officer brought the dog, and when the dog “alerted to the presence of drugs,” the officer searched the car and found “a large bag of methamphetamine.” Rodriguez was eventually convicted of “possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.”

    Rodriguez argued that the officer impermissibly extended the traffic stop—after it was essentially finished—so that he could conduct the dog sniff. Rodriguez argued further that the extension constituted an unlawful seizure. The Court agreed.

    In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court wrote:

    “A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation. ‘[A] relatively brief encounter,’ a routine traffic stop is ‘more analogous to a so-called “Terry stop” … than to a formal arrest.’ Like a Terry stop, the tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns. Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’ Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.”

    The Court wrote that while activities related to traffic enforcement—such as checking a driver’s license and registration—are permissible parts of a traffic stop, “[a] dog sniff, by contrast, is a measure aimed at ‘detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.’ Candidly, the Government acknowledged at oral argument that a dog sniff, unlike the routine measures just mentioned, is not an ordinary incident of a traffic stop. Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission.”

    The Court rejected the prosecution’s argument that so long as the total length of the stop remains reasonable, an officer may extend it to conduct a dog sniff.

    “The Government argues that an officer may ‘incremental[ly]’ prolong a stop to conduct a dog sniff so long as the officer is reasonably diligent in pursuing the traffic-related purpose of the stop, and the overall duration of the stop remains reasonable in relation to the duration of other traffic stops involving similar circumstances. The Government’s argument, in effect, is that by completing all traffic-related tasks expeditiously, an officer can earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation. The reasonableness of a seizure, however, depends on what the police in fact do. In this regard, the Government acknowledges that ‘an officer always has to be reasonably diligent.’ How could diligence be gauged other than by noting what the officer actually did and how he did it? If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of ‘time reasonably required to complete [the stop’s] mission.’ [A] traffic stop ‘prolonged beyond’ that point is ‘unlawful.’ The critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket but whether conducting the sniff ‘prolongs’—i.e., adds time to—‘the stop.’”

    In his dissent, Justice Alito first argued that the Court should have avoided the constitutional question decided in the case because “the police officer did have reasonable suspicion [of illegal drug activity], and, as a result, the officer was justified in detaining the occupants for the short period of time (seven or eight minutes) that is at issue.”3 Then, he argued that the Court’s holding was baseless and impractical, suggesting that officers will delay completing the permitted activities of a traffic stop if they wish to conduct dog sniffs.

    “The Court refuses to address the real Fourth Amendment question: whether the stop was unreasonably prolonged. Instead, the Court latches onto the fact that Officer Struble delivered the warning prior to the dog sniff and proclaims that the authority to detain based on a traffic stop ends when a citation or warning is handed over to the driver. The Court thus holds that the Fourth Amendment was violated, not because of the length of the stop, but simply because of the sequence in which Officer Struble chose to perform his tasks.”

    “The rule that the Court adopts will do little good going forward. It is unlikely to have any appreciable effect on the length of future traffic stops. Most officers will learn the prescribed sequence of events even if they cannot fathom the reason for that requirement.”

    The next case concerns whether during a Terry stop, police may demand that a suspect identify himself, under threat of prosecution if the suspect does not comply.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Larry D. Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada

    Decided June 21, 2004 – 542 U.S. 177

    Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The petitioner was arrested and convicted for refusing to identify himself during a stop allowed by Terry v. Ohio. He challenges his conviction under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.


    The sheriff’s department in Humboldt County, Nevada, received an afternoon telephone call reporting an assault. The caller reported seeing a man assault a woman in a red and silver GMC truck on Grass Valley Road. Deputy Sheriff Lee Dove was dispatched to investigate. When the officer arrived at the scene, he found the truck parked on the side of the road. A man was standing by the truck, and a young woman was sitting inside it. The officer observed skid marks in the gravel behind the vehicle, leading him to believe it had come to a sudden stop.

    The officer approached the man and explained that he was investigating a report of a fight. The man appeared to be intoxicated. The officer asked him if he had “any identification on [him],” which we understand as a request to produce a driver’s license or some other form of written identification. The man refused and asked why the officer wanted to see identification. The officer responded that he was conducting an investigation and needed to see some identification. The unidentified man became agitated and insisted he had done nothing wrong. The officer explained that he wanted to find out who the man was and what he was doing there. After continued refusals to comply with the officer’s request for identification, the man began to taunt the officer by placing his hands behind his back and telling the officer to arrest him and take him to jail. This routine kept up for several minutes: The officer asked for identification 11 times and was refused each time. After warning the man that he would be arrested if he continued to refuse to comply, the officer placed him under arrest.

    We now know that the man arrested on Grass Valley Road is Larry Dudley Hiibel. Hiibel was charged with “willfully resist[ing], delay[ing] or obstruct[ing] a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge any legal duty of his office.” The government reasoned that Hiibel had obstructed the officer in carrying out his duties under § 171.123, a Nevada statute that defines the legal rights and duties of a police officer in the context of an investigative stop. Section 171.123 provides in relevant part:

    “1. Any peace officer may detain any person whom the officer encounters under circumstances which reasonably indicate that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.


    “3. The officer may detain the person pursuant to this section only to ascertain his identity and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his presence abroad. Any person so detained shall identify himself, but may not be compelled to answer any other inquiry of any peace officer.”

    Hiibel was tried in the Justice Court of Union Township. The court agreed that Hiibel’s refusal to identify himself as required by [Nevada Law] “obstructed and delayed Dove as a public officer in attempting to discharge his duty.” Hiibel was convicted and fined $250. The Sixth Judicial District Court affirmed. On review the Supreme Court of Nevada rejected the Fourth Amendment challenge in a divided opinion. We granted certiorari.


    NRS § 171.123(3) is an enactment sometimes referred to as a “stop and identify” statute. Stop and identify statutes often combine elements of traditional vagrancy laws with provisions intended to regulate police behavior in the course of investigatory stops. The statutes vary from State to State, but all permit an officer to ask or require a suspect to disclose his identity.

    Stop and identify statutes have their roots in early English vagrancy laws that required suspected vagrants to face arrest unless they gave “a good Account of themselves.” The Court has recognized [] constitutional limitations on the scope and operation of stop and identify statutes. In Brown v. Texas, [443 U.S. 47 (1979)] the Court invalidated a conviction for violating a Texas stop and identify statute on Fourth Amendment grounds. The Court ruled that the initial stop was not based on specific, objective facts establishing reasonable suspicion to believe the suspect was involved in criminal activity. Four Terms later, the Court invalidated a modified stop and identify statute on vagueness grounds. Th[at] law [] required a suspect to give an officer “‘credible and reliable’” identification when asked to identify himself. The Court held that the statute was void because it provided no standard for determining what a suspect must do to comply with it, resulting in “‘virtually unrestrained power to arrest and charge persons with a violation.’”

    The present case begins where our prior cases left off. Here there is no question that the initial stop was based on reasonable suspicion, satisfying the Fourth Amendment requirements noted in Brown. As we understand it, the statute does not require a suspect to give the officer a driver’s license or any other document. Provided that the suspect either states his name or communicates it to the officer by other means—a choice, we assume, that the suspect may make—the statute is satisfied and no violation occurs.


    Hiibel argues that his conviction cannot stand because the officer’s conduct violated his Fourth Amendment rights. We disagree.

    Asking questions is an essential part of police investigations. In the ordinary course a police officer is free to ask a person for identification without implicating the Fourth Amendment. “[I]nterrogation relating to one’s identity or a request for identification by the police does not, by itself, constitute a Fourth Amendment seizure.” Beginning with Terry v. Ohio, the Court has recognized that a law enforcement officer’s reasonable suspicion that a person may be involved in criminal activity permits the officer to stop the person for a brief time and take additional steps to investigate further. To ensure that the resulting seizure is constitutionally reasonable, a Terry stop must be limited. The officer’s action must be “‘justified at its inception, and … reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’”

    Our decisions make clear that questions concerning a suspect’s identity are a routine and accepted part of many Terry stops. Obtaining a suspect’s name in the course of a Terry stop serves important government interests. Knowledge of identity may inform an officer that a suspect is wanted for another offense, or has a record of violence or mental disorder. On the other hand, knowing identity may help clear a suspect and allow the police to concentrate their efforts elsewhere. Identity may prove particularly important in cases such as this, where the police are investigating what appears to be a domestic assault. Officers called to investigate domestic disputes need to know whom they are dealing with in order to assess the situation, the threat to their own safety, and possible danger to the potential victim.

    Although it is well established that an officer may ask a suspect to identify himself in the course of a Terry stop, it has been an open question whether the suspect can be arrested and prosecuted for refusal to answer. [T]he Fourth Amendment does not impose obligations on the citizen but instead provides rights against the government. As a result, the Fourth Amendment itself cannot require a suspect to answer questions. This case concerns a different issue, however. Here, the source of the legal obligation arises from Nevada state law, not the Fourth Amendment. Further, the statutory obligation does not go beyond answering an officer’s request to disclose a name.

    The principles of Terry permit a State to require a suspect to disclose his name in the course of a Terry stop. The reasonableness of a seizure under the Fourth Amendment is determined “by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate government interests.” The Nevada statute satisfies that standard. The request for identity has an immediate relation to the purpose, rationale, and practical demands of a Terry stop. The threat of criminal sanction helps ensure that the request for identity does not become a legal nullity. On the other hand, the Nevada statute does not alter the nature of the stop itself: it does not change its duration or its location. A state law requiring a suspect to disclose his name in the course of a valid Terry stop is consistent with Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures.

    It is clear in this case that the request for identification was “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified” the stop. The officer’s request was a commonsense inquiry, not an effort to obtain an arrest for failure to identify after a Terry stop yielded insufficient evidence. The stop, the request, and the State’s requirement of a response did not contravene the guarantees of the Fourth Amendment.

    The judgment of the Nevada Supreme Court is [a]ffirmed.

    Justice BREYER, with whom Justice SOUTER and Justice GINSBURG join, dissenting.

    [T]his Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents make clear that police may conduct a Terry stop only within circumscribed limits. And one of those limits invalidates laws that compel responses to police questioning.

    In Terry v. Ohio, the Court considered whether police, in the absence of probable cause, can stop, question, or frisk an individual at all. The Court recognized that the Fourth Amendment protects the “‘right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person.’” At the same time, it recognized that in certain circumstances, public safety might require a limited “seizure,” or stop, of an individual against his will. The Court consequently set forth conditions circumscribing when and how the police might conduct a Terry stop. They include what has become known as the “reasonable suspicion” standard. Justice White, in a separate concurring opinion, set forth further conditions. Justice White wrote: “Of course, the person stopped is not obliged to answer, answers may not be compelled, and refusal to answer furnishes no basis for an arrest, although it may alert the officer to the need for continued observation.”

    About 10 years later, the Court, in Brown v. Texas, held that police lacked “any reasonable suspicion” to detain the particular petitioner and require him to identify himself. Then, five years later, the Court wrote that an “officer may ask the [Terry] detainee a moderate number of questions to determine his identity and to try to obtain information confirming or dispelling the officer’s suspicions. But the detainee is not obliged to respond.Berkemer v. McCarty, [468 U.S. 420 (1984)].

    This lengthy history—of concurring opinions, of references, and of clear explicit statements—means that the Court’s statement in Berkemer, while technically dicta, is the kind of strong dicta that the legal community typically takes as a statement of the law. And that law has remained undisturbed for more than 20 years. There is no good reason now to reject this generation-old statement of the law.

    The majority presents no evidence that the rule enunciated by Justice White and then by the Berkemer Court, which for nearly a generation has set forth a settled Terry stop condition, has significantly interfered with law enforcement. Nor has the majority presented any other convincing justification for change. I would not begin to erode a clear rule with special exceptions.

    I consequently dissent.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Perceptions of Stop-and-Frisk

    In Terry v. Ohio, the majority wrote, “When an officer is justified in believing that the individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating at close range is armed and presently dangerous to the officer or to others, it would appear to be clearly unreasonable to deny the officer the power to take necessary measures to determine whether the person is in fact carrying a weapon and to neutralize the threat of physical harm.” The Court held that the “reasonable suspicion” standard struck a sensible compromise between individual liberty and law enforcement realities.

    In dissent, Justice Douglas warned, “To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path.” He argued that “if the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can ‘seize’ and ‘search’ him in their discretion, we enter a new regime. The decision to enter it should be made only after a full debate by the people of this country.”

    In the subsequent half century, the debate over stop-and-frisk tactics has remained heated. Opponents of the practice have argued that it visits humiliation on suspects for limited benefit and that police apply the tactic in a racially biased manner. For example, a federal court in New York found that the NYPD unconstitutionally focused disproportionately on Black and Hispanic suspects when stopping and frisking New Yorkers. See Floyd v. City of New York, 959 F. Supp. 2d 540 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit initially stayed the ruling of the district court pending appeal, but the city dropped the appeal after the election of a mayor who campaigned on a promise to comply with the district court. See J. David Goodman, “De Blasio Drops Challenge to Law on Police Profiling,” N.Y. Times (March 5, 2014).

    The case in favor of stop-and-frisk was articulated by Heidi Grossman, New York City’s lead attorney in the Floyd trial. She said, “Our defense is that we go to where the crime is. And once we go to where the crime is, we have our police officers keep their eyes open, make observations; and only when they make observations, do they go and make reasonable suspicion stops.” She added that when police conduct stop-and-frisk in areas with high minority populations, “the majority of victims are black and Hispanics in the area. They are begging for help, and they want to be able to walk to and from work in a safe way. And so it is incumbent upon us to have our officers go out there and do their job, and keep the city safe.” SeeThe Argument for Stop-and-Frisk,” NPR (May 22, 2013).

    For the perspective of some New Yorkers who have been repeatedly stopped and frisked and find the experience intensely unpleasant, see Julie Dressner & Edwin Martinez, Op-Doc: Season 1, “The Scars of Stop-and-Frisk,” N.Y. Times (June 12, 2012); Ross Tuttle & Erin Schneider, “Stopped-and-Frisked: ‘For Being a F**king Mutt,’” The Nation (Oct. 8, 2012) (secret recording by teen of himself being stopped, along with interview of anonymous police officer about department practices).

    What are the best (most convincing) arguments in favor of allowing police to stop and frisk suspects without probable cause?

    In our next chapter, we will study how the Court has defined “reasonable suspicion.” A more demanding definition—vaguely close to probable cause—would narrow the set of situations in which police may “stop and frisk” suspects. A less strict definition—something beyond a mere hunch but not much further—would give greater discretion to police.

    This page titled 2.19: Chapter 20 - Stop and Frisk is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anne M Alexander and Ben Trachtenberg (CALI- The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction) .