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Why the Terry stop is still a life-saving tool

The investigative or Terry stop is the bread and butter of the patrol officer who wants to make an impact on crime in their community

Officer and traffic stop 3 (1).JPG

Many officers have become masters at developing criminal cases that start with a traffic violation.


There always will be officers who aspire to make a difference in their community by being proactive in their policing rather than just reactive. They come to appreciate that palpable feeling of accomplishment knowing their personal vigilance prevented a homicide, rape or robbery. Outstanding police work is the result of proper utilization of the valuable crime-fighting tool known as the Terry stop.

The public often confuses the Terry stop with “stop and frisk.” It behooves law enforcement to be ready to answer the question “What is a Terry stop?” and explain to their communities it originated from the landmark United States Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio in which SCOTUS laid out the guidelines to be followed by police officers for making a legal investigative stop.

Patrol done with knowledge, experience and purpose

When you patrol with knowledge, experience and purpose, you are in search of bad people who would victimize the good people who live and work on your beat. You can often clear and even prevent crimes by arresting people after making a successful investigative stop.

The talent of making successful investigative stops develops after you truly get to know the good and bad people on your beat over time by experiencing and remembering who people are and what they are about.

By knowing the good people you serve on your beat, you will be more likely to avoid the stopping of innocent people on the street just going about their business. This not only wastes your time, but it also creates resentment. However, this will occasionally happen and, when it does, sincerely thanking them for their cooperation and apologizing for their inconvenience goes a long way with many toward making amends.

Reasonable suspicion

It is important to remember that you can’t make an investigative stop on merely a gut feeling, no matter how accurate your gut is.

Clearly, you can make a stop on sight if you have probable cause for an arrest. However, you do not need probable cause to make a legal investigative stop.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a reasonable officer can make a legal investigative stop when the officer can articulate a reasonable suspicion that the person about to be stopped is committing, or has committed a crime. You must not only pay particular attention to what is happening before and during a contact for your personal physical survival, but also for your legal survival as well. After an arrest, you must possess the ability to articulate the legal justification for the stop.

Parts of the totality puzzle

You must look at the case that you are trying to solve from your patrol car by making an investigative stop as a puzzle with many pieces. The more pieces of the puzzle you construct before deciding to make the stop, the clearer the picture you will have as you approach the contact. You will not only know that the stop you are making is legal, but it will also help an officer to decide on what tactics to use to keep them safe during the stop and ultimate arrest.

Here are some pieces of the puzzle that when observed bring an officer ever closer to reasonable suspicion to make that stop:

  • You are patrolling in a business district, or residential area that has recently been experiencing many burglaries, car entries, thefts, rapes or whatever is the crime you suspect the individual of being involved in.
  • You are patrolling in that area during the general time of the occurrences.
  • You see a man coming out of an alley in this area who you know from prior experiences has committed that crime or those crimes.
  • The man matches descriptions of the suspect.
  • The man resembles security footage of the suspect that you have seen.
  • The man is seen in close proximity to the scene of the crime just committed.
  • That man is wearing bulky clothes and gloves even though the weather is warm.
  • The vehicle closely matches the description of the vehicle driven by the suspect in a crime.
  • The man sees your squad and turns back into the alley sharply as if he is going to run, then stops and exits the alley continuing to walk in what appears to be a feigned nonchalance, or makes some other clearly suspicious yet describable movement.
  • The man is carrying an item that is a commonly stolen item in the current crime spree.
  • The man, after seeing you, tosses an item into some nearby bushes.
  • The man sees you and instantly bolts and runs!

Additional examples include:

  • In drug cases, you note when you have observed multiple short-term contacts with an exchange.
  • You see what appears to be a crime in progress, like a subject prying on a window, or a man roughing up another person.
  • Someone looks in need of serious help or endangered such as a drunk man staggering through the snow with no shirt on.

None of these observations rise to a level of probable cause, but when you can articulate seeing a number of them, they can add up to reasonable suspicion for an investigative stop.

“The frisk”

One major mistake made by some officers conducting Terry stops is the misperception that where there exist grounds for the stop, there is automatically grounds for a “frisk.” This is a legally fatal error.

The court in Terry specifically identified the frisk as a separate issue from the stop, stating, “a reasonably prudent officer is warranted in the circumstances of a given case in believing that his safety or that of others is endangered, he may make a reasonable search for weapons of the person believed by him to be armed and dangerous.”

Here are some pieces to go with this separate frisk puzzle to help justify a pat-down search:

  • The suspect is historically known to go armed often.
  • There are bulges in the area of his beltline that appear to be the outline of a firearm or edged weapon.
  • The suspect made a furtive motion, which the experienced officer identified as a movement commonly used by suspects to reach for, check, reposition, or prepare to take advantage of, a concealed weapon.
  • The movement of the suspect has revealed what appears to be a portion of a weapon concealed on his person.
  • A named witness said he was armed.
  • The crime, which you have reasonable suspicion to believe the suspect is involved in, is commonly committed with a weapon.

When an officer can articulate a number of these observations, it will most likely be deemed reasonable for that officer to conduct a pat-down search of an individual for their own safety.

However, few judges in a contested case will rule in favor of an officer whose only justification for the pat-down search is, “My personal policy is when I stop, I frisk.”

The investigative stop during a legal traffic stop

Many officers have become masters at developing criminal cases that start with a traffic violation by:

  • Utilizing plain view to look hard and see contraband or readily identifiable fruits of a crime in plain view to develop probable cause for an arrest of the driver and the eventual search of the vehicle.
  • Becoming adept at identifying indicators of deception.
  • Legally obtaining permission to search the vehicle.
  • Calling a K-9 over, during the right circumstances, to conduct a walk around.

When the investigative stop is attached to a legal traffic stop and a K-9 is called to the scene for a walk around, it’s important to note that in Rodriguez v. United States the court clearly ruled that the length of the business of such a stop can’t be extended to await the arrival of the K-9. Such an extension would be considered a separate seizure from the initial stop.


The investigative or Terry stop is the bread and butter of the patrol officer who wants to make an impact on crime in their community. Crimes will be solved, and lives will be saved.

For these officers, being at the right place at the right time is owed less to luck and more to an acquired skill in the use of the valuable tool that is the Terry stop.


Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Terry Stop/Stop and Frisk.

NEXT: 5 simple rules for staying safer during a Terry stop

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.