Section 2.2: Stop and Frisk

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

‘Stop and Frisk’ is a procedure followed by law enforcement officers in the United States. Let’s break down the term. ‘Stop’ means a police officer can temporarily detain you if they suspect you’re involved in criminal activity. ‘Frisk’ means they can pat down your outer clothing if they believe you might be carrying a weapon (Terry v. Ohio, 1968).

‘Stop and Frisk’ was established by the Supreme Court in the landmark case, Terry v. Ohio. The Court decided that an officer does not violate the Fourth Amendment by stopping and frisking an individual if the officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that the person may be involved in criminal activity and may be armed and dangerous (Terry v. Ohio, 1968).

The Conditions for a ‘Stop and Frisk’

Reasonable suspicion is a key term in ‘Stop and Frisk.’ It’s lower than ‘probable cause’ but still requires more than just a hunch. The officer must be able to point to “specific and articulable facts” that suggest criminal activity might be happening (Terry v. Ohio, 1968).

Moreover, for the ‘frisk’ part, the officer needs to have a reasonable belief that the person is armed and presently dangerous. The ‘frisk’ is only for the officer’s safety and to discover weapons, not to find evidence of a crime (Terry v. Ohio, 1968).

The Controversy Surrounding ‘Stop and Frisk’

While ‘Stop and Frisk’ is a valuable tool for police, it has generated significant controversy. Critics argue that it can lead to racial profiling, where officers disproportionately target people of color. This issue came to the forefront in the case Floyd v. City of New York (2013), where a federal judge ruled that the New York Police Department’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ practices were unconstitutional, as they disproportionately targeted black and Hispanic individuals, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The Terry Case

In Terry v. Ohio (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court outlined the legal foundation for the ‘Stop and Frisk’ procedure, which is also called a Terry stop after the landmark case.  Here are the main facts and issues in the case, as well as the definition of ‘reasonable suspicion.’

Facts of the Case

In October 1963, a police officer named Martin McFadden noticed two men, John Terry and Richard Chilton, acting suspiciously on a street in Cleveland, Ohio. They were pacing back and forth, looking into a store window multiple times. Thinking they might be planning a robbery, Officer McFadden approached and questioned them. He then decided to frisk them for weapons, finding guns on both men.

Issues in the Case

The main legal question was whether Officer McFadden’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The defendants argued that the officer did not have ‘probable cause’ (a higher standard of suspicion) to search them.

The ‘Reasonable Suspicion’ Standard

The Supreme Court decided that ‘probable cause’ wasn’t necessary in this situation. Instead, they created a new standard of ‘reasonable suspicion.’ This is a lower standard that requires specific, articulable facts that suggest a crime might be about to happen. In Terry’s case, the officer’s observation of the men’s unusual behavior met this standard.

Moreover, for a frisk, the officer must reasonably believe the person is armed and dangerous. Officer McFadden’s decision to frisk Terry and Chilton was justified by their suspicious behavior and his concern for his own safety.

This landmark decision allowed the police to stop and frisk individuals based on ‘reasonable suspicion,’ shaping law enforcement practices across the United States.

Seizing Other Items During a Terry Stop

While the primary purpose of a frisk during a Terry stop is to protect officer safety by finding weapons, there are circumstances where the police can seize other items. This aspect of Terry stops comes from another landmark Supreme Court case, Minnesota v. Dickerson (1993).

Minnesota v. Dickerson: The Plain Feel Doctrine

In Minnesota v. Dickerson (1993), the Supreme Court expanded on the Terry ruling by introducing the ‘plain feel’ doctrine. Timothy Dickerson was stopped and frisked by a police officer. While the officer didn’t find a weapon, he did feel a small lump in Dickerson’s pocket that he suspected to be crack cocaine. He seized the lump, which did indeed turn out to be drugs.

Dickerson argued that this was an illegal search because the officer didn’t have probable cause to suspect that the lump was drugs. However, the Supreme Court disagreed.

The Plain Feel Doctrine Explained

According to the Supreme Court, if an officer feels an object during a frisk, and it’s immediately apparent that the object is contraband, the officer can seize that object. This is known as the ‘plain feel’ doctrine.

However, the Court also emphasized certain limitations. The officer’s suspicion must be based on what they could determine through touch alone, without manipulating the object more than necessary for a weapons search. In addition, the incriminating nature of the object must be immediately apparent to the officer.

The Implications of the Plain Feel Doctrine

With the ‘plain feel’ doctrine, a Terry stop can lead to the discovery and seizure of contraband other than weapons, such as drugs. However, it must meet the strict conditions set by the Court to respect the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. This doctrine continues to influence law enforcement practices today, highlighting the ongoing impact of the Terry v. Ohio ruling.

The Future of ‘Stop and Frisk’

The future of ‘Stop and Frisk’ remains uncertain. It’s clear that it provides police with a valuable tool for preventing crime. However, its potential misuse, leading to violations of citizens’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, presents significant challenges. These issues continue to be debated in our courts and political institutions.


‘Stop and Frisk’ is a police procedure established by the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio (1968). It allows police to stop and frisk a person if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity and is armed and dangerous.

While a valuable tool for law enforcement, ‘Stop and Frisk’ has sparked controversy over potential racial profiling and constitutional rights violations, as highlighted in the Floyd v. City of New York case (2013). The future of ‘Stop and Frisk’ remains uncertain as these issues continue to be addressed.

Modification History

File Created:  08/06/2018

Last Modified:  07/13/2023

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