• North Carolina Criminal Law | What is a 'Terry Stop'
  • May 3, 2012
  • Law Firm: Matheson Law Office PLLC - Raleigh Office
  • While most people in America will not receive any criminal charges beyond traffic violations, there are still interactions with Police Officers in which every person should be aware of their rights. While Practicing as a criminal defense attorney Raleigh I have seen occasions where Police have utilized what is known as the 'Terry Stop' in order to obtain incriminating evidence against the individual. Most people may not be familiar with the 'Terry Stop,' also known as the 'Stop and Frisk.' While most will view this as a violation of an individual's 4th Amendment Constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure, as this article will explain, the United States Supreme Court has qualified it as a legal means of search without probable cause.

    The Stop and Frisk is used by Police when interacting with potential Criminal Defendants. As a Durham Criminal Attorney and Raleigh Criminal Attorney practicing in North Carolina, I have studied the Stop and Frisk extensively. To discuss the 'Stop and Frisk', it is best to back up and cover where this Police tactic came from. The case that originated the Stop and Frisk is called Terry v. Ohio. In it, the Defendant, John Terry was searched by a Police Officer without Probable Cause of any crime being committed or about to be committed, who discovered a concealed hand gun and charged Terry with carrying a concealed handgun. The facts surrounding the case involve the officer observing Terry, and two other defendant's acting 'suspiciously.' The three were observed taking turns walking up to a store front window of a convenience store, and peering inside. Then they would gather and talk, then another would return and look inside the window. The Officer believed the three were 'casing' the store for a robbery. The
    Police Officer approached the three and asked their names. He subsequently patted down Terry and felt a revolver in the pocket of his overcoat. The revolver was removed (as was a revolver being carried by another defendant discovered in the same manor) and the two were charged.

    The court opinion laid out a grown work in which officers can freely 'search' an individual solely on a 'reasonable suspicion' standard. Prior to Terry, the courts have held that in order to not violate the 4th Amendment, the Police must meet the 'probable cause' standard. The probable cause standard is that it is more probable then not that a crime has been committed, was recently committed or is about to be committed. This standard is what must be met before an individual can be arrested for the suspected crime, and prior to 'Terry' what was required before a search as well. Terry set a 'reasonable suspicion' standard, which only requires the Police Officer to have a reasonable suspicion (i.e. 'some' reason to believe) that a crime has been committed, about to be committed, or recently committed. In the case of 'Terry,' the sheer fact that the men were walking back and forth to the window, and conferring, qualified as 'reasonable suspicion' that they were going to commit a robbery. In fact, what many do not realize is, the Terry Stop can be used even during a Traffic Stop or Driving While Intoxicated Stop.

    A 'Terry Stop' is broken down into two parts: the stop and the frisk. Once an officer has reasonable suspicion, they can temporarily detain the individual to ascertain whether their suspicion was correct. During this time, the individual IS NOT required to answer any of the Police Officer's questions. During this 'temporary detainment,' if the Police Officer has reason to believe the individual may be armed and/or that their safety may be in jeopardy, then they may pat down the outer clothing of the individual to look for weapons. The Officer MAY NOT reach into the pockets or inner clothing of the individual UNLESS they feel something during their pat down that can readily be determined to be contraband. The contraband DOES NOT have to be a weapon, as was the original purpose of the pat down. If the Officer can tell the item is anything illegal, namely drugs, by feeling it during the pat down, then they now may search the pockets to retrieve the item. These items can now be used to charge the individual with a crime. This intrusion into a person's security is justified by the courts in that, when an officer has a reason to believe the individual may be armed and/or their safety may be in jeopardy, they can search the individual for a weapon without the requirement of 'probable cause.'

    Though a Police Officer's safety is extremely important, so are Constitutionally Protected individual rights. Though this right given to Police can be used with legitimacy and with an eye on respecting American citizens individual rights to be secure in their person, it has the potential for abuse. Requiring an Police Officer to only have 'reasonable suspicion' to temporarily detain someone can really be almost anything. From there, they only need some reason, whatever it is, to feel their safety may be in danger, to authorize a search of that person.

    Disclaimer - Information and advice offered in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and is specific to North Carolina law. The viewing, receipt and/or exchange of information from this article does not constitute an Attorney-Client Relationship. For assistance regarding your particular legal question speak with an Attorney practicing in the field from which your questions derives.