Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Terry Search Definition:

A justifiable protective search for weapons, even in the absence of probable cause to arrest, where there is a suspicion that an individual is armed and dangerous.

Related Terms: Plain Feel Doctrine, Plain View Doctrine

Also known as a Terry frisk.

Named after the 1968 US Supreme Court case in which it emanated (Terry v Ohio).

Later, in Michigan v Long. Justice O'Connor summarized the authority in Michigan v Long:

"[A] protective search for weapons in the absence of probable cause to arrest (is valid) because it is unreasonable to deny a police officer the right to neutralize the threat of physical harm when he possesses an articulate suspicion that an individual is armed and dangerous."

In more detail, the same Court, Justice Rehnquist writing the opinion of the majority, in Adams v Williams, added:

"In Terry this Court recognized that a police officer may in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner approach a person for purposes of investigating possibly criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest. The Fourth Amendment does not require a policeman who lacks the precise level of information necessary for probable cause to arrest to simply shrug his shoulders and allow a crime to occur or a criminal to escape. On the contrary, Terry v Ohio recognizes that it may be the essence of good police work to adopt an intermediate response. A brief stop of a suspicious individual, in order to determine his identity or to maintain the status quo momentarily while obtaining more information, may be most reasonable in light of the facts known to the officer at the time.

"The Court recognized in Terry v Ohio that the policeman making a reasonable investigatory stop should not be denied the opportunity to protect himself from attack by a hostile suspect. 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, he may conduct a limited protective search for concealed weapons. The purpose of this limited search is not to discover evidence of crime, but to allow the officer to pursue his investigation without fear of violence, and thus the frisk for weapons might be equally necessary and reasonable, whether or not carrying a concealed weapon violated any applicable state law. So long as the officer is entitled to make a forcible stop, and has reason to believe that the suspect is armed and dangerous, he may conduct a weapons search limited in scope to this protective purpose."

The pat-down search must be limited to what is necessary for the discovery of weapons and, if it goes beyond that limit, the fruits of the search will be suppressed.1

The State of Louisiana has codified the authority for a Terry search at 215.1(B) of Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure (2011).

"When a law enforcement officer has stopped a person for questioning pursuant to this Article and reasonably suspects he is in danger, he may frisk the outer clothing of such person for a dangerous weapon. If the law enforcement officer reasonably believes the person possesses a dangerous weapon, he may search the person."


  • Adams v Williams, 407 US 143 (1972)
  • Michigan v. Long, 463 US 1032 (1983)
  • State v. Furlow, 780 So. 2d 602 (2001; note 1)
  • Terry v. Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968)

Categories & Topics:

Always looking up definitions? Save time with our search provider (modern browsers only)

If you find an error or omission in Duhaime's Law Dictionary, or if you have suggestion for a legal term, we'd love to hear from you!