“Terry Stop” versus Arrest – Understanding the Difference in Georgia

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In today’s America, it is critical for everyone to be aware of his or her constitutional rights. One critical right is the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the requirement that no warrants shall be issued except upon probable cause. An encounter between a private citizen and a law enforcement officer, however, must rise to the level of a seizure and de facto arrest for the protection to be triggered.

Below is some basic information that is important for private citizens to know in order to be able to exercise their rights when interacting with law enforcement.


Reasonable Suspicion & Probable Cause: The Difference

United States law allows a law enforcement officer to temporarily detain a private citizen for a short period of time-based on the reasonable suspicion that the individual is, or was, engaged in some type of criminal activity. This is known as a “Terry Stop.” The standard for reasonable suspicion is lower than that of probable cause.

Under the law, probable cause is necessary for a lawful arrest. During a Terry Stop, an officer may conduct a quick pat down – which must be brief and non-intrusive – over the person’s clothing, depending on the circumstances. Terry Stops have come under criticism over the years because studies have shown that minorities are historically stopped and frisked by law enforcement at a higher rate.


Terry v. Ohio

The “Terry Stop” is named after the 1968 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio. The case involved an officer who suspected that three men – including defendant Terry – were planning to rob a store. The officer witnessed two of the individuals walk up to, and subsequently away from, the store’s window several times.

A third individual met up with the two and they began talking in a group. After approaching the men and identifying as law enforcement, the officer asked what they were up to. Upon receiving a mumbled response, the officer grabbed Terry and patted him down to see whether or not he had any weapons. As a result of the pat down, the officer found a gun. The officer also found a gun on one of the other men. During trial, the officer testified he suspected the men may have had weapons. The trial resulted in Terry’s conviction of possession of a concealed weapon. He appealed, alleging the officer’s search violated his Fourth Amendment rights but lost.

The court found that a law enforcement officer has the authority to detain a private citizen on the street without probable cause. An officer also has the authority to conduct a search to find any possible weapons on the citizen’s person when there is reasonable suspicion that the citizen has committed, or (like in Terry v. Ohio) has reasonable suspicion the person is about to commit, a crime.

The court also held that law enforcement may frisk persons for guns and other weapons if there is reasonable suspicion – based on “specific and articulable facts” and not a mere hunch – that the private citizen is armed and dangerous. Both of these scenarios would not violate the Fourth Amendment.


Contact Moffitt Law, LLC Today

If you have questions about the difference between a Terry Stop and an arrest – or if you have been charged and/or convicted of a crime resulting from an unlawful stop and frisk – contact Moffitt Law, LLC today. Our experienced Georgia criminal defense attorneys can discuss your rights under the law. Contact us for your free, initial, case evaluation.

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